Shane Long shields the ball from Ivanovic when the teams met in 2014. INPHO/Ryan Byrne 
Familiar faces

'Ireland will be our most difficult opponents' - Ivanovic sees Long and Walters as major threats

The Serbia and Chelsea defender knows what to expect when they meet the Boys in Green in tomorrow night’s World Cup qualifier.

Ben Blake reports from Belgrade 

SERBIA CAPTAIN BRANISLAV Ivanovic has paid Ireland a massive compliment by predicting that they will provide the toughest opposition in the World Cup qualifiers.

The two nations are joined by Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova in Group D, with the winner guaranteed a spot at the 2018 finals, while the runner-up progresses to the play-offs provided they are one of the best eight second-placed sides.

Experienced Chelsea defender Ivanovic, who has 87 caps for his country, has faced the Boys in Green on three occasions and has yet to lose — although all three games were friendlies.

Having played in the Premier League for the past eight years, the 32-year-old also knows many of the Irish players particularly well, and he spoke highly of forward pair Shane Long and Jon Walters.

“I think Ireland will be the most difficult opponent,” Ivanovic said at today’s pre-match press conference.

“They demand respect and I’ve been impressed by their level of continuity. This team has been playing together awhile and there is a nice mix of young players and players with experience.

It might be because I’ve played in the Premier League for so long, but I understand how difficult an opponent they are. They are aggressive and they make up for any faults the team might have by giving it their very all every second.

“All their players, and especially Long and Walters, are very difficult to defend against. Maybe this is something I shouldn’t be saying before the game but we will be concentrating on them.

“They are the kind of players who don’t give defenders a second to have a lapse in concentration and will make things difficult from start to finish.”

Britain Soccer FA Cup Ivanovic is well aware of how dangerous Jon Walters can be. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Serbia have failed to qualify for major tournaments on their past three attempts and, despite possessing a gifted crop of players, finished fourth in the Euro 2016 qualifying group after being docked points due to violent scenes in a clash with Albania.

“The biggest disappointment for a player is not to be at major tournaments like the European championships and the World Cup,” added Ivanovic.

“We are mostly to blame for this, although there were a couple of situations that weren’t up to us but these things happen. We’re ready to go forward and do well.”

Branislav Ivanovic Ivanovic speaking today. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Experienced coach Slavoljub Muslin took the job back in May and tomorrow night will be his competitive match in charge.

The Serbians are expecting to win at Belgrade’s Red Star Stadium, but their manager is looking at the bigger picture.

“Serbia will be going into each match playing for a win — home or away,” said Muslin. “Especially as the first match is at home, we’ll be going for three points.

It’s important to get three points from the first match and to start well but it’s not crucial as there are many to come and it’s a long qualifying period.

“We’ve seen Ireland play in the European championships both defensively and also when they needed a win against Italy.

“We need to play our own way and push them to go forward in the match.”

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