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Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Team preview: Serbia

By Rachel Ullrich
ESPN.com

The 2010 tournament marks the first World Cup appearance for an independent Serbia, having entered previous years as Yugoslavia and, in 2006, Serbia and Montenegro. The end result in 2006 was an unhappy one as the squad was dropped out in group stages after a first round that included a 6-0 rout by Argentina, but its chances look better this time.

Serbia's squad includes several stars of European soccer, including Nemanja Vidic -- who missed the 2006 tournament with injury -- and Dejan Stankovic. The team also provided the biggest shock of UEFA qualifying when it finished at the top of its group -- ahead of a pack that included 2006 runner-up France. The Serbs lost only twice in the campaign, one loss coming with a second-string squad after qualification already had been secured.

The Serbs are caught in a tricky group, one that many pundits are calling the real Group of Death. But they are confident they can make it through the first round and are considered by many the dark horse of this year's finals. A run to the quarterfinals would not be out of the question.

Coach: Radomir Antic

Despite more than 20 years of coaching experience, Antic's appointment was met with some speculation from the Serbian fans when he joined the team only a month before qualification began. But after Serbia's strong qualifying run, "Raddy" has become a favorite among the fans and the players, many of whom credit Antic as a father figure. His coaching background is set mostly in Spain, with hugely successful spells at Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona. He is the only man to have coached all three squads.

Style of play

Antic almost always favors a 4-4-2 formation, and he isn't afraid to push his wingers up. Players with the pace of Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic provide a serious threat to opposing defenses, with their ability to get behind fullbacks and exploit an opening. This reliance on the wings means the Serbian squad gets fewer goals from its central forwards. Height and size on both strikers and defenders helps the team on set pieces, when Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic can add bodies up top.

Players to watch

1. Dejan Stankovic. The squad's captain and its talisman, Stankovic appeared as a teenager in 1998 for then-Yugoslavia and has been one of the most prominent players for Serbia since the squads separated. Now 31 and second on Serbia's all-time appearances list, Stankovic is likely on his last chance to make a significant impact on the field for his country.

2. Milan Jovanovic. The team's leading scorer during qualification, Jovanovic should provide the most potent offensive threat for Serbia. Jovanovic showed off electrifying pace and smart footballing extincts with Standard Liege this season, and that has flowed over into his international duties well.

3. Nemanja Vidic. Vidic is the team's vice-captain and one of its most important players. A stocky central defender, Vidic is considered the rock of the Serbian team and was virtually unbeatable during qualification. Paired with Chelsea defender Ivanovic on the back line, Vidic and the Serbian defense should prove a formidable front.

Who's hot

Stankovic. He's coming off a treble win with his club team, Inter Milan, and believes that momentum will carry over to the World Cup. Stankovic scored two goals in Inter's Champions League campaign and came on as a second-half substitute in the finals win against Bayern Munich last month.

Who's not

Nikola Zigic. Zigic scored only three goals in the Serbs' qualification campaign and has struggled for his club since moving to Valencia in 2007. He will have to find his scoring touch to assert himself up top for Serbia, which lacks many other scoring options.

Three key questions

1. Can strong wingers make up for a mediocre central midfield? Krasic and Jovanovic are exceptional on the wings, and their performances for club and country have garnered interest from several top European clubs. But their pace makes up for a distinct lack of it in central midfield, where Stankovic and Nenad Milijas play. The central midfield will have to work to keep up with its wingers in order to be successful.

2. Can the squad win with strikers who don't score? Despite the talent on the wings, Serbia lacks a true No. 9 up top. At 6-foot-8, Zigic is a physical specimen, but the striker tends to disappear for large portions of the game. Marko Pantelic, the squad's second option, provided more assists than goals during the qualification campaign (Serbia's leading scorer was a midfielder).

3. Will the "other" Group of Death kill its chances? Serbia is in a tough group along with Germany, Australia and Ghana, but all its players believe they can manage expectations and get through to the second round. From there, the defense will become key in progression, but a lack of goal-scoring options could prove the squad's ultimate Achilles' heel.

Projected lineup

G Vladimir Stojkovic (Sporting Lisbon, Portugal)
D Ivan Obradovic, Real Zaragoza (Spain)
D Aleksandar Lukovic, Udinese (Italy)
D Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United (England)
D Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea (England)
M Milan Jovanovic, Standard Liege (Belgium)
M Nenad Milijas, Wolves (England)
M Dejan Stankovic, Inter Milan (Italy)
M Milos Krasic, CSKA Moscow (Russia)
F Marko Pantelic, Ajax (Netherlands)
F Nikola Zigic, Birmingham (England)