Palace fans across the world will be tuning into the World Cup cheering on their respective nations, but will also likely be following the progress of Luka Milivojevic’s Serbia during the tournament.
But how much do you know about the Eagles enforcer’s nation’s footballing past and present? If you want to get up to scratch, here are 10 handy facts to impress your mates with as you watch them in action against Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica during the group stages.
What’s in a name?
Serbia is considered by FIFA to be a direct successor of the Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro sides that preceded it. Yugoslavia began playing games in 1920s but after the breakup of the country which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia become independent nations, the remaining country would become Serbia and Montenegro in 2003.
Following a referendum that brought about Montenegro’s independence in 2006, they kept the blue shirts so Serbia switched to red. That also meant a change of nickname, and deriving inspiration from their coat of arms and national symbol, they chose the Eagles.
World Cup pedigree
This will be the 12th time that a team representing Serbia has made it to a World Cup out of the 21 editions of the competition, and they were even present at the first tournament held in Uruguay in 1930 when Yugoslavia finished fourth, a feat they would achieve once again in 1962 in Chile.
In the modern era they reached the quarter-finals in 1990 where they were beaten on penalties by Argentina, but after reaching the knockout stages of France 98, they failed to make it out of the group on their last two appearances in 2006 and 2010, and failed to qualify in 2014.
Blasts from the past
Dejan Stankovic has the unique distinction of representing Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and Serbia in World Cups, while former Aston Villa attacker Savo Milosevic also won over 100 caps for the nation, and the Golden Boot at Euro 2000.
Their all-time highest goalscorer is Stjepan Bobek who netted 38 times for Yugoslavia during their golden era of 1946-1956, while Milan Galic and Dragan Dzajic were the stars of their golden era in the 1960s when they won the 1960 Olympic football tournament and finished runners-up in the European Championships twice.
A total of 28 players from the country have appeared in the Premier League, including Sasa Curcic who played 26 times for Palace between 1998 and 1999, scoring five goals, and Nemanja Vidic who won five league titles with Manchester United and a UEFA Champions League – something that Sinisa Mihajlovic and Pedrag Mijatovic also notably achieved in the 1990s.
How they got there
Drawn in a competitive group alongside Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Austria, Serbia’s hopes of qualifying were given a huge boost in October 2016 when they won a topsy-turvy 3-2 thriller against Austria, and then twice came from behind to snatch draws against Wales.
They stretched their unbeaten start to qualifying to eight games in September 2017 after sneaking a 1-0 win against Ireland despite being reduced to 10 men, and despite losing 3-2 in Austria when Milivojevic scored his first international goal, a 1-0 win over Georgia in their final game ensured automatic qualification with a record of six wins and three draws from their 10 games.
Since clinching qualification in October, Serbia beat China and drew with South Korea in the autumn, before losing to Morocco and beating Nigeria in March at Barnet’s Hive Stadium.
After the 23-man squad was confirmed, two games took place in Austria before Serbia embarked to Russia. Firstly a meek performance saw them lose 1-0 to Chile, but they bounced back by thrashing Bolivia 5-1 to send them to the tournament on a high.
Rookie caretaker in charge
Due to some behind-the-scenes disagreements, Serbia are being led into the competition by a temporary manager with no previous experience at club or international level.
Mladen Krstajic had been a coach in the national setup when Slavoljub Muslin was dismissed despite clinching qualification, apparently due to his negative tactics. First-choice for the job was Guangzhou R&F’s Dragan Stojkovic but due to his unavailability, the 59-time capped centre-back has stepped into the hotseat for the tournament, having represented Serbia and Montenegro in the 2006 competition.
Mitro on fire
Spearheading Serbia’s charge to the tournament was Newcastle United’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored six goals in qualifying to finish as the group’s top scorer. Having found first-team opportunities limited at St James’ Park, he was loaned to Fulham on transfer deadline day in January to help cement his spot in the Serbia squad.
He barely stopped scoring following his arrival at Craven Cottage, including a run of 12 goals in 13 games to help the Cottagers into the Championship play-offs and return to the Premier League. He bagged a brace in the friendly win against Nigeria in March, and then fired in a hat-trick against Bolivia to take his tally to 16 goals in 37 caps.
As well as Mitrovic, Serbia have plenty of players with Premier League experience, including Aleksandar Kolorov who captains the side. Branislav Ivanovic should line up in defence alongside the skipper and ex-Manchester City man Matija Nastasic, while goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic had a loan spell at Wigan Athletic in 2010 and also played for Nottingham Forest.
Defender Milos Veljkovic featured twice for Tottenham Hotspur, while Milivojevic could be partnered by Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic in the centre of midfield, and Southampton attacker Dusan Tadic should feature as Serbia’s playmaker. Meanwhile, Marko Grujic could also be a midfield option after impressing on loan at Cardiff City from Liverpool.
Despite a lengthy absence from tournament football, perhaps it is unsurprising that Serbia reached Russia as their current crop of players boast plenty of pedigree, having enjoyed success in youth competitions during the past five years.
The Serbs lifted the 2013 UEFA European U19 Championship with seven of their 18-man squad going on to become full internationals, while over half of their 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup winning squad have now been capped. Five players heading to Russia lifted both trophies – goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, Veljkovic, midfield duo Nemanja Maksimovic and Mijat Gaćinovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
A star in the making?
One of the reasons that brought about Muslin’s dismissal despite clinching qualification was his reluctance to select Lazio midfielder Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old hot prospect was instead quickly handed his first caps by Krstajic last November, and is tipped for a big money move in the summer with Manchester United reportedly poised with a £80 million bid.
A box-to-box player, Milinkovic-Savic is blessed with an excellent range of passing and is capable of scoring from long range, and netted 12 goals in 35 Serie A appearances last season. He is set to play just behind Mitrovic in a 4-2-3-1 formation and could be one of the tournament’s breakout stars.