Serbia's hopes rest on young Mitrovic, Milinkovic-Savic in tough group
The 2018 World Cup is just over a month away, and all 32 teams are preparing in earnest for their shot at the trophy in Russia. ESPN FC is previewing every team ahead of the opening game on June 14. Find all 32 teams here.
Who they are
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov
Manager: Mladen Krstajic
FIFA rank (as of April 12, 2018): 35
How they qualified
Topping Group D in the UEFA qualifiers was no mean achievement for Serbia, but it caused surprisingly little fanfare at home. Their place at Russia 2018 was confirmed with a 1-0 home win over Georgia, but the celebrations were relatively muted, perhaps because disappointment still lingered at a late 3-2 defeat in Austria three days earlier.
Qualifying in such serene fashion had seemed a tall order at the outset, though, with Wales and the Republic of Ireland joining the Austrians in the group. Serbia were consistent throughout, and an ultimately decisive moment came in September 2017, when Kolarov's goal gave them a 1-0 win in Dublin. There were only two games left to play after that; Serbia finished the job, although that was not enough to save their manager, Slavoljub Muslin, from being sacked.
If Serbia can fine-tune it in time, they have a midfield that can match up to almost any in Russia. The steel and composure of Nemanja Matic need little introduction, and Luka Milivojevic has had a fine season with Crystal Palace; if Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the prodigious Lazio playmaker, can be bedded in alongside them, it comes close to the complete package.
A failure to accommodate Milinkovic-Savic in the qualifiers was largely what accounted for Muslin's dismissal; he was swiftly called up to face South Korea and China in November but missed the March friendlies through injury. Even if he does not start Serbia's opening game against Costa Rica, there is plenty of hope elsewhere. This is a technically gifted side that can be lethal on the counter and should not lack creativity.
Serbia has punched spectacularly above its weight in terms of player production for many years and the sense has long persisted that the national team is less than the sum of its parts. They looked far more cohesive -- not to mention motivated -- in qualifying, but there are still areas of doubt.
Pace is lacking in a defence that has long been marshalled by Branislav Ivanovic, 34, while Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina, their full-backs, are aging, too. Ivanovic's place may yet be in doubt, with Krstajic relieving him of the captaincy in March and noting that "no one can take a spot in the 23-man spot for granted." The manager prefers a four-man back line to the 3-4-3 system deployed by Muslin and the system may not be perfected by mid-June.
More broadly, Serbia can find it hard to sustain a high tempo for 90 minutes; they have a habit of switching off at key moments and will need to address that if they are to make it through the group stage.
Aleksandar Mitrovic enters this tournament in devastating form. There was never any doubt about the centre-forward's importance to the national team -- he scored six goals in qualifying -- but his Premier League opportunities at Newcastle United were limited and a loan move to Championship promotion hopefuls Fulham looked an unwelcome step back.
But Mitrovic was electric at club level during the second half of the campaign, breaking off to score twice in Serbia's 2-0 win over Nigeria, and he showed that with creative players behind him, he is still one of Europe's most interesting young striking prospects. He is still just 23 and has plenty of scope to improve; he currently seems to be in the best shape of his career and the natural choice to lead the line for a Serbia side whose attacking play has improved considerably in the past two years.
Mitrovic would be hard to replace in the event of injury, although Milinkovic-Savic stands to be similarly influential if he is successfully accommodated in the starting lineup.
What the local media says
"Brazil is the world's most sophisticated selection and will be favourite for first place in the group. ... [It] is realistic to expect the Eagles to fight for the second stage with the Costa Ricans and the Swiss." -- Blic, Serbian newspaper
What the stats say
The smart money is on a jostle for second place with a Switzerland side that has more tournament experience. Serbia will pip them to the round of 16 but, with Germany their likely opponents at that stage, further progress looks to be a long shot.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.