The old and new will come together when Serbia take to the field this summer.
Gone is the man who led them back to the World Cup after 2014’s absence, Slavoljub Muslin. In his place stands Mladen Krstajic, a born leader and 59-cap veteran who is undertaking his first head coach role.
Change is also afoot within the ranks. Muslin’s reluctance to integrate 2015’s Under-20 World Cup winners paved the way for his dismissal, with the likes of gloriously gifted – but overlooked – Lazio centre midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic now set to team up with Manchester United anchorman Nemanja Matic, Zenit St Petersburg defender Branislav Ivanovic plus a host of European stars.
The question now is whether this new mixture can lead the nation to glory.
There is no doubt that the Serbians have underachieved since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – not once have they passed the group stage.
Stars such as defensive warrior Nemanja Vidic, craftsman Dejan Stankovic and striker Mateja Kezman all underwhelmed in 2006 – as Serbia and Montenegro – and 2010.
This is the first major tournament they have have qualified for since as Muslin’s ability to draw consistency from a temperamental squad ended this run, topping a generous Group D in 2018 qualifying. The goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has flourished at Fulham on loan from Newcastle, and Southampton flyer Dusan Tadic were key then – and will be in Russia.
Luka Milivojevic has also grown into a regular source of goals for Crystal Palace from central midfield.
The youthful pair of Eintracht Frankfurt’s Mijat Gacinovic and Benfica’s Andrija Zivkovic can add plenty of excitement in attack, while all eyes will be on the €100 million-rated Milinkovic Savic.
It is to be seen whether the creaking legs of new captain Aleksandar Kolarov and Ivanovic can keep up. They can count on commitment from coach Krstajic, but he is untested at this rarefied – or any – level. Serbia must beat Costa Rica on June 17 in Samara when Group E gets under way and a defining test follows against Switzerland, before Brazil sashay into Moscow.
The United veteran provides a cerebral – and sizeable – presence in midfield.
Possesses the defensive diligence to cover the back, plus the expansive passing range to ignite an exciting attack. Partnership with Milivojevic is foundation for team’s resurgence.
The ex-Werder Bremen and Schalke centre-back is a managerial greenhorn but a popular figure in the dressing room. He is also well versed in his squad’s strengths and weaknesses after assisting Muslin.
Has dumped his predecessor’s 3-4-3 formation and moved to a 4-2-3-1.
Krstajic’s desire to stamp his authority on the squad saw him decide in March to end Ivanovic’s six-year run with the captain’s armband and hand it to Kolarov.
The adventurous, 32-year-old left-back has enjoyed a renaissance at Roma and boasts more than 70 caps.
It is odd to see that the coveted midfielder didn’t feature during qualifying. But once Muslin was dismissed, the 23-year-old excelled as a starter in both November’s friendlies.
Will add physicality, technical exuberance and a goal threat – likely off the substitutes’ bench.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Three major tournaments missed in a row before Muslin led them to World Cup 2018.
– It’s 12 years since Montenegro claimed independence and Serbia struck out alone.
– 50 per cent of qualifying goals were scored by Dusan Tadic and Aleksander Mitrovic.
78 DEF 79 MID 76 ATT
World Cups competed at
12 (First in 1930, nine as Yugoslavia)
World Cup record
P43, W17, D8, L18
Fourth place (1930 & 1962)
P10, W6, D3, L1
Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade), Predrag Rajkovic (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrovic (Eibar)
Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Milan Rodic (Red Star Belgrade), Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Uros Spajic (Anderlecht), Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), Dusko Tosic (Guangzhou R&F), Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina)
Midfielders: Nemanja Matic (Man United), Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Andrija Zivkovic (Benfica), Filip Kostic (Hamburg), Nemanja Radonjic (Red Star Belgrade), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Adem Ljajic (Torino)
Forwards: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham), Aleksandar Prijovic (PAOK Thessaloniki), Luka Jovic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
The talent is there to claim second place in Group E. But a likely round-of-16 meeting with Germany should be the end of their journey.
Cahill, 32, picked up his 60th senior cap as he came off the bench against Costa Rica on Thursday, having earned a spot in Southgate’s squad for Russia despite being dropped earlier in the year.
A strong end to the campaign at Chelsea, which saw him lift the FA Cup, saw Cahill recalled and he started and scored in the first warm-up match with Nigeria last weekend.
Kyle Walker is expected to be on Southgate’s teamsheet when the tournament gets under way, with his Manchester City colleague John Stones pushing for a place in defence having been the only man to start both friendlies.
Harry Maguire of Leicester is another option and Ferdinand believes Cahill should remain on the sidelines as Southgate’s side get their World Cup under way a week on Monday.
Asked by Press Association Sport if Cahill should start to bring experience into the England back-three, Ferdinand replied: “No.
“I am not going there to win the tournament if I am the manager and I think Gareth Southgate is going there to be competitive and to learn and build for a later tournament.
“He knows the underbelly of what is coming through better than anyone, being the (former) England Under-21s manager.
“He would have been looking at the Under 16s, 17s and 18s when he was there so he knows what is coming.
“There is no doubt in my mind he has got a board in his office, he has got the current squad but also the next three or four years mapped out – who is coming through if they get the right development.
“I can see him looking further ahead than just this tournament.”
While many are not expecting England to go all the way in Russia, Ferdinand feels leaving the competition with no regrets would still be going one better than when he was involved in the international set-up.
“Just go out there, it is not rocket science. Go out and try and enjoy it,” he said when asked at the Road to Russia Preview what his message to the current crop would be.
“As important is the manager setting down the tone of the team early. I think it is important that these guys, which they seem to have done, buy into a philosophy of playing.
“They all know he is going to play three at the back, understand and work that out so by the time the tournament finishes there is positivity coming through the team, even though we have gone out, maybe.
“Hopefully they can take some positives from the tournament, whereas when I left tournaments our teams couldn’t take many positives.”
Their Colombian supremo Juan Carlos Osorio – a former conditioning coach at Manchester City before the Abu Dhabi takeover – revels in uncertainty, as he’s used 44 different lineups, and counting, across his tenure.
Results have been just as unpredictable.
A superb first-place finish in CONCACAF qualifying was earned for the first time since 1998.
Yet this followed June 2016’s 7-0 humbling by eventual champions Chile in the Copa America Centenario, their worst-ever result in nine entries. Prior to this, El Tri had won nine and drawn one of Osorio’s games in charge – conceding just twice.
In 2017, semi-final defeats were also registered to teams of contrasting ability. Winners Germany ended hopes with a 4-1 triumph in the Confederations Cup, while a frustrating 1-0 reversal was recorded against minnows Jamaica in the Gold Cup.
This contrasts the startling predictability of Mexico on the game’s grandest stage. Since 1994, they have suffered roundof-16 exits in each tournament.
Only when they hosted the tournament in 1970 and 1986 did they make the quarter-finals. And Russia is a long way from home.
This side is top heavy in attacking talent. Despite a middling debut campaign at West Ham, all-time top scorer Javier Hernandez should see off the threat of Benfica target man Raul Jimenez.
On the wings, the prolific Hirving Lozano has the ability to be a breakout star after his stellar exploits at PSV. With a tactical focus on maintaining position, Porto captain Hector Herrera is key in the middle.
But their soft centre is a worry.
Real Sociedad’s Hector Moreno is the only guaranteed starter in a three-man defence and 39-year-old ex-Barcelona icon Rafael Marquez has been recalled to anchor the midfield for a reason.
Standard Liege goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s weakness against crosses accentuates this problem.
Group F begins with a daunting opener against Germany, but after that come kinder ties against South Korea and Sweden.
The true face of Osorio and his charges is about to be learned.
At 29-years old, ‘Chicharito’ already possesses more international goals than Mexico legends such as Hugo Sanchez and Luis Hernandez.
But his talents were not appreciated by David Moyes at West Ham, meaning he comes in undercooked. Will need to be at his best for El Tri to succeed
Juan Carlos Osorio
Tactical fluidity is the principle that underpins Osorio’s approach. The 56-year-old constantly switches personnel, keeping both his opponents and squad on their toes.
Results have largely been impressive, but stalwarts such as Ochoa are demanding consistency. Will he grant it?
The surprise recall for the 39-year-old veteran saw him replace Andres Guardardo as skipper.
His selection means the ex-Monaco and Barcelona defender will become just the third-ever player in history – joining Germany’s Lothar Matthaus and fellow Mexican Antonio Carbajal – to appear in five World Cups.
Scouts at Europe’s biggest clubs will be eagerly studying how the inverted left winger gets on this summer. A fantastic debut campaign for the 22-year-old at PSV concluded with 19 goals plundered from 33 run-outs.
More of the same and a huge move should beckon.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Six-consecutive eliminations in the round of 16 at World Cups.
– Minus 35 combined goal difference for Mexico across their 15 world cup entries.
– 50-per-cent fewer goals scored by Chicharito in 2018 qualifying (three) compared to 2014 (six).
77 DEF 79 MID 81 ATT
World Cups competed at
16 (First in 1930)
World Cup record
P53, W14, D14, L25
Quarter-finals (1970 & 1986)
P16, W11, D4, L1
Goalkeepers: Jose de Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liege)
Defenders: Hugo Ayala (Tigres), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Diego Reyes (Porto), Miguel Layun (Sevilla), Hector Moreno (Real Sociedad), Edson Alvarz (America), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrrey)
Midfielders: Rafael Marquez (Atlas), Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy) Marco Fabian (Eintracht Frankfurt), Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Hector Herrera (Porto), Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Javier Aquino (Tigres)
Forwards: Raul Jimenez (Benfica), Carlos Vela (LAFC), Javier Hernandez (West Ham United), Jesus Manuel Corona (Porto) Oribe Peralta (America), Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven)
Have talent in the ranks to break their attachment to the round of 16. But Osorio’s erratic management and results cause serious question marks.