Dragan Stojkovic (file pic). SIPA USA/PA Images

'I can't accept that Ireland play better than us' - The legendary manager and all you need to know about Serbia

Dragan Stojković feels his side should beat the Boys in Green.

LAST UPDATE | 23 Mar 2021

AHEAD OF big international matches, Ireland fans are used to hearing opposition managers come out with largely bland and generic praise, invariably alluding vaguely to their “spirit” when asked about the Boys in Green.

It has not been the case with Serbia boss Dragan Stojković, though.

Commenting on Wednesday’s big upcoming World Cup qualifier (kick-off: 7.45pm, live on RTÉ 2 and Sky Sports Football), the Red Star Belgrade legend was willing to give a more honest assessment of the game as he saw it.

“I have never watched as many games,” he told Serbian outlet Mozzartsport recently. “There was a lot of analysis of both opponents [Ireland and Portugal] and our own games. I can’t say that everything was so bad before that nothing worked, but there are things that need to change. And that is, first of all, to find our identity, the style of play that we want to show, so that people can see what football in Serbia is.

“This is a difficult group. I’m not so crazy as to say that our opponents have no clue, they do. Ireland can be uncomfortable to play against, but I can’t accept that they can play better than us.”

Ireland midfielder Alan Browne was subsequently asked about the comments, responding: “I’m unfazed by that. We expect to beat Serbia, I have no problem with that, as a manager you expect your team to go out and win.

“Fair play to him for coming out and saying that, a lot of people hide behind words and don’t say what they are thinking, but I know our manager will be expecting the same from us and we’ll see how we get on on the day.”

Stojkovic was only confirmed as Serbia’s new manager earlier this month. He replaced Ljubisa Tumbakovic, who lost his job after failing to guide the team to the Euros — they were beaten by Scotland in the play-offs on penalties.

The 56-year-old became a legendary figure during his playing days. The former midfielder made 84 appearances and scored 15 goals for the country formerly known as Yugoslavia between 1983 and 2001.

He was an important member of the sides that competed in the 1990 and 1998 World Cups, captaining them on the latter occasion as they made it into the knockout stages.

He enjoyed plenty of success at club level too, making over 100 appearances between 1986 and 1990 for Red Star Belgrade, who were considered one of the top teams in Europe during that era, before going on to win the Champions League at Marseille in 1993.

Stojkovic is a former head of the Yugoslavia football association, while his previous managerial stints have come in Asia, with Japan’s Nagoya Grampus (2008 to 2013), who he also represented as a player, and Guangzhou R&F (2015 to 2020) in China.

And the legendary former footballer recognises there is work to be done if he is to reverse Serbia’s current fortunes. 

“I don’t remember a worse game than Scotland and better than Norway [who they beat in the Euro qualification play-off semi-finals] in the last seven or eight years. I watched the whole Scotland game and I better not comment on it. Player position, space, time, timing, everything was…not good.” 

The 56-year-old coach has already shown himself to be willing to make big calls. 35-year-old former Man City player Aleksandar Kolarov is absent from the squad, and Crystal Palace midfielder Luka Milivojevic — who has 38 caps to date — also fails to make the cut, while Man United star Nemanja Matic announced his retirement from international duty last year.

The standout names available include Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Dusan Tadic of Ajax, who is his country’s captain. Premier League fans, meanwhile, will likely be familiar with Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović and Marko Grujic, who is still officially a Liverpool player despite having only appeared very sporadically for the Reds since joining in 2016 — he is currently on loan at Porto.

In addition, 21-year-old striker Dušan Vlahović is enjoying an excellent season with Fiorentina, having registered 13 goals in 34 appearances in all competitions, appears likely to start up front, potentially at the expense of Mitrović, who has managed just two Premier League goals for Fulham this season, both of which came amid the 4-3 loss to Leeds last September.

It’s a turbulent time for the team off the field, with Serbian Football Association president Slavisa Kokeza earlier this week stepping down amid allegations, which he denies, of links to organised crime.

On the pitch though — at least in the short term — the impact of that controversy is unlikely to be substantial.

Serbia will go into match as favourites, given Ireland’s poor recent record and the fact that they are the higher seeded team.

In light of the many injuries and out-of-form individuals the squad has had to deal with, Stephen Kenny’s side will probably be happy enough should the match end in a draw.

However, with reigning European champions Portugal expected to top the group, Ireland will likely need to beat the Serbs at least once if they are to secure one of the top-two spots needed to keep alive their chances of World Cup qualification.

It will not be easy though. Ireland have played Serbia five times in the latter’s footballing history, which only goes back to 2006, when they started playing as an independent country, having previously competed under various forms of Yugoslav national teams. And the Boys in Green have never beaten them before, losing two and drawing three.

The most recent and only other competitive time the sides met was in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Martin O’Neill’s team managed a creditable 2-2 draw away, before losing 1-0 at home, as the Serbs advanced as group winners, while the Irish team ultimately lost out against Denmark in the play-offs.

So Kenny will almost certainly need to reverse that negative trend if he is to succeed in his goal of ensuring Ireland are one of the 13 European countries travelling to Qatar in November next year.

Serbia squad:

Goalkeepers: Predrag Rajković (Reims), Marko Dmitrović (Eibar), Đordje Nikolić (Basel)

Defenders: Stefan Mitrovic (Strasbourg), Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina), Uros Spajic (Feyenoord), Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), Strahinja Pavlovic (Cercle Brugge), Marko Petkovic (TSC), Milan Gajic (Red Star), Filip Mladenovic (Legia Warsaw)

Midfielders: Mihailo Ristic (Montpellier), Sasa Lukic (Torino), Uros Racic (Valencia), Nemanja Maksimovic (Getafe), Nemanja Gudelj (Sevilla), Nemanja Radonjic (Hertha), Dusan Tadic (Ajax), Nenad Krsticic (AEK), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Filip Djuricic (Sassuolo), Darko Lazovic (Verona), Marko Grujic (Porto), Ivan Ilic (Verona), Andrija Zivkovic (PAOK), Filip Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt)

Forwards: Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham), Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt), Dušan Vlahović (Fiorentina), Đordje Despotović (Rubin Kazan).

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