On the road to Euro 2016, Balkan nations endure mixed fortunes
A year ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was in a football trance when the national team opened their World Cup campaign vs. Argentina in the Maracana stadium. Twelve months after their first-ever major tournament, however, the Bosnians will host Israel in a Euro 2016 qualifier on Friday surrounded in a completely different atmosphere.
Seeded in the first pot for the first time ever the Dragons were, together with Belgium, favourites in a group that also includes Wales, Israel, Cyprus and Andorra, teams with no recent history of qualification success.
However, a terrible start vs. Cyprus at home resulted in a 2-1 defeat and was followed with poor performances at Wales (0-0) and Israel (0-3). Safet Susic, the manager who lost his grip during the World Cup and never recovered it, was axed after Israel and replaced by Mehmed Bazdarevic.
The former Sochaux manager, who made his name in France with minnows like Istres and Grenoble, inherited a demoralized and disorganized team which sits in a more than dangerous position: Bosnia are fifth in Group B with five points; six behind Belgium and Wales and three behind Israel. It all means a simple but difficult situation: Bosnia must defeat Israel if they want to keep alive their chances to be in France next year.
Bazdarevic, who made his debut in a 3-0 win vs. Andorra in March, is faced with a problem of having the spine of his team out of form, as Miralem Pjanic was the only regular in club football at the end of the season.
The captain and biggest star Edin Dzeko played just 25 minutes for Man City since the start of April. Meanwhile, Vedad Ibisevic scored his last goal for Stuttgart in January 2014, Emir Spahic was released by Bayer Leverkusen in March and both Muhamed Besic and Asmir Begovic were forced to watch the last month of the Premier League from the Everton and Stoke benches, respectively.
"We are well aware of the situation," said Begovic to Bosnian media ahead of Friday's game. "We are aware that there is no turning point from here. We must take the responsibility and show that we are much better than results were. We owe that to the nation; winning is the only option".
It is a now-or-never situation for Bosnians, who effectively find themselves in the knockout stage, and the same applies to Serbia, whose campaign has been affected by the chaos caused by the now-infamous drone that caused their game vs. Albania to be halted in October.
Serbia were awarded a 3-0 win but also deducted three points because of a pitch invasion and attack on Albanian players. With only one point on their account, Serbia are only above Armenia in Group I, six points behind Albania and Denmark, as well as eight behind leaders Portugal.
While their youth teams are continuously among the top teams in Europe -- the U20s will play a World Cup quarterfinal vs. the United States on Sunday -- Serbia cannot transfer that to the biggest stage. Their qualifying campaigns for Euro 2012 and the last World Cup were failures and this one threatens to be the same. Defeat in Denmark on Saturday would probably end the hope that a team featuring Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Adem Ljajic will make it to France.
Years of underachieving and bad management have turned the Serbian public against the team, and expectations are lower than ever. Since playing in the 2010 World Cup, the national team's manager has changed six times (including caretakers), with the most recent departure being Dick Advocaat, who was in charge for just four games.
He was replaced by Radovan Curcic, a 43-year-old who led Serbia's U21 side to qualification for the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. It is hoped he can replicate the passion and fighting spirit of that youth team among the top stars. Still, Curcic knows that Denmark match is decisive for Serbia, if not in theory then in practice.
"Despite good results with youth teams, we are aware that the performances of our team in the qualifiers are the ones that create the complete picture of Serbian football," he said to Sportski Zurnal. "We are optimists; completely focused on how to win this match and not thinking about what could happen if we lose. We have no choice, we must stay disciplined and organised for 90 minutes, if we want to beat very strong Denmark team."
While Bazdarevic and Curcic depend on this weekend's results, Croatia manager Niko Kovac approaches the match vs. Italy in relative peace. Croatia are unbeaten and top Group H with 13 points from five matches and are on the way to secure what would be their ninth major tournament qualification since independence. However, they are not without their own problems.
Kovac's team will face Italy behind closed doors in Split after racist chants during March's game vs. Norway that also resulted in a €50,000 fine. The Croats are not just deprived the support of the home crowd; Luka Modric, who tore a muscle in his left thigh during November's draw with Italy and missed most of the rest of the season, will be absent.
While Kovac has more than solid alternatives in Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic, he'll struggle to compensate for the absence of Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren at the back. Still, the pressure is off; dominating a group that also contains Norway, Bulgaria, Malta and Azerbaijan mean they should get to France more or less routinely, no matter how the Italy match ends.
Saša Ibrulj is a Bosnian freelance journalist who splits his time between Mostar and Stockholm. He contributes to The Guardian, ESPN, The Blizzard, Josimar and others. You can follow him on Twitter @sasaibrulj.