Verdict: Home win
Best odds: 13/20
Serbia and the Republic of Ireland have been drawn together in a World Cup qualifications group again. They faced each other as they strove to reach the final tournament in Russia in 2018, with Serbia coming out better off while Ireland went on lose their play-off clash to Denmark.
This time around, it’s Group A where they’ll be battling against each other, and they start at the Rajko Mitic stadium in Belgrade on Wednesday. Serbia are second seeds behind Portugal, while Ireland are third. Azerbaijan and Luxembourg are in there as well.
Having lost the play-offs for this year’s European Championship to Scotland, Serbia will be aiming to make a fresh start here, with a new man in charge of the team – Dragan Stojkovic, fondly referred as ‘Piksi’ in his country, former Yugoslavia captain and Red Star legend.
Ranking 30th in the FIFA rankings and with some notable names in their team, Serbia arguably have the quality to make an appearance at the World Cup in Qatar, but they certainly aren’t certain to qualify from this group – they will need all the points they can get.
Serbia’s last competitive game was a 5-0 triumph over Russia, but the result came too late – it was the final round of the last edition of the UEFA Nations League and they were already without a chance to win promotion from the League B.
Speaking to the press when he announced the names of the players he’s counting on for the upcoming three matches, Stojkovic insisted that he hadn’t closed the door for anyone, that there are a number of players being monitored and considered for the next international period, and that Schalke defender Matija Nastasic and Hoffenheim midfielder Mijat Gacinovic were in the process of recovering from injury.
Predrag Rajkovic of Stade de Reims is expected to stand between the posts, ahead of Eibar’s Marko Dmitrovic and Basel’s Djordje Nikolic. At the back, the most resounding name is arguably Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenkovic, though Uros Spajic of Feyenoord and Werder Bremen’s Stefan Veljkovic have also been heard of. Marko Grujic, currenty at FC Porto on loan from Liverpool, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic of Lazio, Sevilla’s Nemanja Gudelj and Getafe’s Nemanja Maksimovic form a very strong midfield base.
Upfront, they have the likes of Luka Jovic, back at Eintracht Frankfurt on loan from Real Madrid, brilliant Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic, as well as Djordje Despotovic of Rubin Kazan. Ajax winger Dusan Tadic captain’s the side.
Republic of Ireland
Having been appointed to the job nearly a year ago, Stephen Kenny is yet to lead Ireland to a victory. His team has so far lost five matches and drawn three, but Ireland’s winless run stretches back even further – to November 2019.
On one hand, it could seem that there isn’t much hope at the moment, but the lack of expectation and the pressure that inevitably goes with it could yet prove a blessing in disguise at the start of these qualifications.
Lie Serbia, Ireland finished third in their group (League B Group 4) in the Nations League, behind Wales and Finland. At the moment, they rank 42nd in the FIFA list, with the gap between them and their hosts for this match standing at 36 points.
Kenny has had to make several late, unpleasant calls in terms of his squad for this stretch of games. First of all, many expected Liverpool backup goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher to make his senior international debut in Belgrade, but the 21-year-old has been ruled out with an abdominal tear. His absence comes on top of West Ham’s Darren Randolph already being out, and now it seems likely that Manchester City youngster Gavin Bazunu will be given a chance.
Shane Duffy, currently with Celtic on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, will probably be in the heart of defence, but Kevin Long, who usually plays by his side, will not, due to injury. Newcastle’s Ciaran Clark could be set to start there instead.
There will be no Swansea City’s (loan from Aston Villa) Conor Hourihane in the middle of the park either, or Bristol City’s Callum O’Dowda on the attacking flanks.
Southampton’s Shane Long is likely to lead the forward line, probably with Stoke’s James McClean and Burnley’s Robert Brady flanking him.
It’s hard to see Ireland getting anything from this game, given their poor run under Kenny and with all the injury absences in mind. Belgrade is a tough place to visit, and Serbia simply have more talent and overall quality in their ranks at the moment, and they’ll be extremely motivated to get off to a good start before they face group favourites Portugal on Saturday.
Verdict: Home win
Best odds: 13/20
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