Under-pressure Serbia already feeling the heat under blazing Balkan sky

It’s a long, straight motorway, cutting through endless fields of corn, which takes you from the centre of Belgrade to Stara Pazova where, tucked away at the back of a small industrial park, resides the modern home of Serbian football, a state of the art training complex opened in 2011.

But the road which has brought the national team to the start of another World Cup campaign has been far more tortuous.

While the country has enjoyed recent spectacular success at underage level, the senior team has failed to qualify for three tournaments on the trot since finishing last in their group at the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.

Such recurring underachievement has seen the Serbian public grow increasingly disenchanted with the national team, a dislocation not helped by the fact that the hardcore fans of the capital’s big two — Red Star and Partizan — have traditionally tended to pledge allegiance to club over country.

It also explains why, in a bid to generate support for the home side tonight, it has been announced 10,000 children will be allowed in free.

Yet, even so, some here are pessimistically predicting there will be at most 25,000 in the 55,000-capacity home of Red Star. “If we had the kind of support that your Irish team has, we would beat you 3-0,” one local reporter only half-joked yesterday.

As the media peppered him with questions yesterday, you didn’t need to be able to read between the lines to measure the ferocious weight of pressure now bearing down on the shoulders of new Serbian manager Slavoljub Muslin, a 63-year-old journeyman from Belgrade who has racked up some 19 jobs in just over 25 years.

Has the noted disciplinarian had to resort to “shock treatment” to get a reaction from his players? Would he accept that, after 121 days and three friendlies — comprising of wins over Cyprus and Israel and a draw away to Russia — the honeymoon is now officially over for him?

In his replies, Muslin did his best to lower the stakes, accentuate the positive and, at times, even try to make it seem like this was just another game.

“I don’t know if we can speak about shock therapy, but what I have seen of the team in these three matches is that there is a great level of motivation and a great level of concentration,” he said.

“I have especially been happy with the level of unity I have seen in the team. The two players, (Aleksandar) Kolarov and (Nemanja) Matic, who cannot play because of red and yellow cards, have been with the team in training and have shown their support for the team and I think this is exactly what we need if we are to go forward.

“It’s important to get three points in the first match. It is very important to start well —but it is not crucial. There are many more games to come and it is a long qualifying period. We have seen Ireland play in the European Championships. We have seen them play defensively and, against Italy, you saw them play for the win when they needed a win.”

Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic said the players had to accept the bulk of the responsibility for coming up short in recent years.

“Of course, the biggest disappointment for a player and for a professional is not to be at the highest level at major competitions like European Championships and the World Cup,” he said, “and we are the ones who are most to blame for this.”

But even as he praised the new coach for “planting the will to succeed” and generally talked up his team’s state of preparedness in the manner that you would expect of a skipper and pre-match spokesman, in expressing his admiration for the Irish team Ivanovic was also revealingly frank about just how tough a test he reckons tonight’s game will be for Serbia.

“Ireland is a very difficult opponent to start the qualification with — I would say the most difficult, probably — but if we play like we did (in the friendlies) and like we have trained, then we can do well.

“Ireland are an opponent that needs to be respected, that demands respect, and what I am especially impressed about is their level of continuity.

“They have been playing together for a while, there’s a nice mix of young players and players with experience, and it might be the fact that I have played in the Premier League for so long that I understand how difficult an opponent Ireland really is.

“They are aggressive and they make up for any faults that the team might have by giving their all every second.”

Asked specifically about what, as a defender, he has learned from playing in England against the likes of Shane Long and Jon Walters, the Chelsea man replied: “Especially the two that you mentioned, they are very difficult to defend against.

"Maybe this isn’t something I should be saying ahead of the match, but we will be concentrating a lot on them. They are the kind of players who don’t need a second for defenders to have a lapse in concentration. They make things difficult from start to finish.”

And with those cautionary words, Muslin, Ivanovic and the rest of the Serbian squad took their leave of the air-conditioned interior to step outside and begin work on the training pitch beneath a blazing sun. It was only 10am and, already, the temperature was 25 degrees and rising.

But all concerned here know that that’s as nothing to the heat they will feel should Serbia fail to open the new era with a win against Ireland tonight.

POSSIBLE TEAM (3-4-3):

P Rajkovic, Ivanovic, S Mitrovic, S Rajkovic;0 Rukavina, Milivojevic, Fejsa, Mladenovic; Tadic, A Mitrovic, Kostic


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