Serbia welcome the Republic of Ireland for their opening World Cup 2022 qualifier with a quiet air of mystery about them as they usher in a new era (kick-off 7.45pm).
Failure to qualify for Euro 2021 – they were eliminated at home following a penalty shoot-out with Scotland – led to the sacking of coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic.
He was replaced by Serbian legend Dragan Stojkovic, who became a national hero when he scored both of the former Yugoslavia’s goals in their 2-0 win over Spain at Italia ’90.
The 56-year-old’s coaching career has been less stellar – he has managed exclusively in Japan and China, though he did win the J-League with Grampus Eight in 2010.
Stojkovic has already put his stamp on the team with his first squad selection, which sees veterans like Man United’s Nemanja Matic and Inter’s Aleksandar Kolarov discarded in favour of younger talent.
They boast an array of exciting attacking options, with one of Serie A’s most talked-about strikers Dusan Vlahovic a relative newcomer.
In Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic and Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic they have two of Europe’s finest young players, while the veteran Dusan Tadic of Ajax has been named the new captain.
“I don’t pay attention to the Ireland selection – I have to focus only on my team and my players,” said Stojkovic.
“I know as much as one coach needs to know. That is enough to convey to my players about what awaits them against Ireland.”
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
The Republic of Ireland travel to Belgrade more in hope than expectation as injury has once again left Stephen Kenny without several key players.
Having failed to score in seven of the eight games under Kenny’s charge, Ireland could really do with a positive result.
A repeat of the 2-2 draw at the same venue that opened the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign would be a success – defeat without getting on the scoresheet less so.
Kenny can rightfully point to ongoing bad luck with regard to team selections as the team that lines out in Belgrade will be shorn of all but four, possibly five, of his first-choice players.
Goalkeeper Darren Randolph is the only man to play every minute of Kenny’s reign, and has played every competitive game since his debut in 2015, but he has failed to recover from a hip injury.
His deputy Caoimhin Kelleher also misses out, as do John Egan, Adam Idah, James McCarthy and Conor Hourihane, among others.
That Kenny can still name an all-Premier League backline is testament to Ireland’s strength in that area but it’s in goal and in midfield where he may need to rely on youth.
"Serbia are an extremely talented team. We’ve seen that in some of their games,” said Kenny.
“Obviously, they beat Russia 5-0 and they played well. It’s our ambition to win the game, like any other game, we’re not setting the team up in defensive mode.
“The team lacks experience in key positions but there is a lot of talent within the group and I’m hoping that we can create a performance to get the result that we need.”
Mark Travers will make his competitive debut in goal but there remain question marks in the middle where Josh Cullen or Jason Knight could play their first qualifier in green.
There are also fitness doubts up front, where Aaron Connolly is managing a rib injury and may not feature, while Callum Robinson and Shane Long are out of favour with their clubs.
Robinson is the most likely man to be charged with spearheading the Irish attack in Idah’s absence and he’ll be desperate to rediscover some of his promising early-season form.
Referee: Davide Massa (Italy).
Serbia and the Republic of Ireland have met five times since the former split from Montenegro in 2006.
Three of those meetings were friendlies, two of which finished in a draw and a 2-1 win for Serbia when the sides met at Lansdowne Road in 2014.
The sides were drawn together in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, when they also faced each other in the opening game in Belgrade.
After Jeff Hendrick had given Ireland an early lead, second-half goals from Filip Kostic and Dusan Tadic turned it around before Daryl Murphy’s late header secured a 2-2 draw.
In the return game at the Aviva Stadium, Aleksandar Kolarov struck early in the second half to earn a 1-0 win for the Serbs as they qualified automatically for the finals.
Serbia 4/6; Draw 23/10; Republic of Ireland 9/2.
Serbia 1 – 0 Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Injured: Darren Randolph, Caoimhin Kelleher, John Egan, Kevin Long, Conor Hourihane, Callum O’Dowda, Adam Idah, James McCarthy.
Doubtful: Aaron Connolly.
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