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Man United midfielder Matic sees Ireland showdown as one of the biggest 'in Serbia's football history'

Group D’s top two teams go head-to-head in Dublin tomorrow night.

Matic and Glenn Whelan when the sides met in 2014.
Matic and Glenn Whelan when the sides met in 2014.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

SERBIA’S NEMANJA MATIC believes tomorrow night’s World Cup qualifier in Dublin ranks as one of the biggest fixtures in the nation’s history.

Sitting top of Group D with three matches to play, Slavoljub Muslin’s side take on second-placed Ireland knowing victory will see them take a major step towards next year’s finals in Russia.

Formerly part of Yugoslavia and, subsequently, Serbia and Montenegro, the nation have appeared at one World Cup (in 2010) since they began playing independently 11 years ago.

For that reason, Matic feels the significance of their meeting with Ireland is enormous.

“Tomorrow is the most important game for us in this qualification — maybe in Serbia’s football history,” Matic said. “We know that it’s hard to take points at this stadium and it will be an important game for them. We’re happy that we’re first and we will do our best to stay in that position.

“Before, when we were Yugoslavia, there were many big games in the European Cup and World Cup but since Serbia separated I think this game will be right up there. If we win we know we are very close to going to the World Cup.

We are a small country and football means a lot so this would be very important.”

Along with Roma’s Aleksandar Kolarov, Matic missed the 2-2 draw with Ireland in Belgrade this time last year through suspension.

However, the 29-year-old is sure to start tomorrow night. A defensive midfielder who screens the backline superbly, he comes into the fixture in great form after settling in well at Manchester United — the club he joined from Chelsea for £40 million this summer.

Ireland allowed Georgia huge amounts of possession in the 1-1 draw on Saturday but Matic says not having the ball has worked alright for them so far.

“To have possession of the ball is not that important if you get results,” he added. “Up to now, Ireland have taken many points. Nobody will ask you after the game how you played if you get three points.

“They have a special style of football with long, direct balls and this works. Ireland are second in the table only behind us and the most important thing is who will be in Russia. I saw they had 25-30% of possession in Georgia but they still got a point.”

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Manchester United v West Ham United - Premier League - Old Trafford Matic has started brilliantly at Man United. Source: Richard Sellers

Having failed miserably to reach Euro 2016, Serbian football looks to be in a far better state now than it did when the teams faced off in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago and there’s a renewed sense of optimism in their camp.

“We had some problems in the last qualification but we had to forget that. We have some great players so we have to use that. With a great manager and the experience that we have, I think we’re doing our job well.

“We can still improve because we’ve got some good young players but step-by-step, game-by-game, we are getting better and better. We have more confidence. We are starting to believe. We have changed the system and maybe that is better for us.”

With Serbia in pole position and games against Austria and Georgia to come, Matic admits a point would represent a good night’s work.

A draw would not be a bad result for us,” he said. “Of course we want to win but we know it will be hard at this stadium. The most important thing is to stay in this position.”

Another former Man United midfielder, Roy Keane, will be in Ireland’s dug-out on Tuesday and Matic remembers watching the current Ireland assistant control games as a boy.

“As everybody knows, he’s a legend of Man United,” he said. “He was a very important player for them for a long time. When I started to follow football, he was at his best. He was one of the top midfielders in the league and I’m happy that I play with the same club now as he played.

“I tried to take from every player to improve myself and he was one of those players. I will be happy to see him and have a chat with him tomorrow.”

Probable Serbia line-up: Stojkovic; Rukavina, Ivanovic, Maksimovic, Nastasic, Kolarov; Matic, Milivojevic; Tadic, Mitrovic, Kostic.

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Ben Blake

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