Dragan Stojkovic, pictured during his previous role as manager of Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League. SIPA USA/PA Images
opposition view

New Serbian manager 'can't accept' being inferior to Ireland

Dragan Stojkovic has been speaking about his plans for the upcoming World Cup qualification campaign, which begins against Ireland next week.

NEW SERBIAN MANAGER Dragan Stojkovic says he “can’t accept” the prospect of being outplayed by Ireland in next Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Belgrade. 

With Portugal the group’s top seed and widely expected to take first place and qualify for the World Cup automatically, Ireland will be scrapping for the runners-up spot and a play-off place with second seeds Serbia. 

Stojkovic – whose gilded playing career included scoring both goals in Yugoslavia’s last-16 win over Spain at the 1990 World Cup – was appointed to the Serbian job at the beginning of the month, and says his task is to be competitive in qualification while committing Serbia to football that will “make you catch your breath.” 

In an extensive interview to Serbian outlet Mozzartsport, Stojkovic sets out his vision for the Serbian team, and says while it’s acceptable that Ireland may prove a “very uncomfortable” opponent, he “can’t accept they can play better than us.” 

“I have never watched as many games. There was a lot of analysis of both opponents 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. 

“We have to play dynamic football, which has a rhythm to it, which has beauty in it. When you watch us, you will catch your breath, that is what I want to do, and I can do that, I am convinced of that.”

Stojkovic’s eventual appointment became a saga: he was finally given the job at the start of March in spite of the fact his predecessor, Ljubiša Tumbakovic, was sacked last year having failed to qualify for Euro 2020. 

Their Euros failure encapsulated an inconsistency Stojkovic is trying to stamp out: having beaten Erling Haaland’s Norway in the play-off semi-finals, they underwhelmed and lost the final on penalties to Scotland. To further confound matters, they then beat Russia 5-0 in the Uefa Nations League. 

“I don’t remember a worse game than Scotland and better than Norway 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.” 

Stojkovic has injected youth into his squad, leaving out veterans like Aleksander Kolarov of Inter Milan and Crystal Palace midfielder Luka Milivojevic. Nemanja Matic of Manchester United, meanwhile, has retired, with Stojkovic hailing 20-year-old midfielder Ivan Ilic of Verona as his natural successor. 

Attackers Sergej Malinkovic-Savic (Lazio) and Dusan Tadic (Ajax) are both included, and Stojkovic has denied they cannot be accommodated in the same team, while also praising young striker Dusan Vlahovic, in sensational form with 11 goals in his last 17 games for Fiorentina in Serie A. 

After taking on Ireland, Serbia host European champions Portugal four days later, before a trip to play Azerbaikan on 30 March.


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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