By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia will head to the World Cup with a youthful team minus any real pressure to reach the knockout stages, having reached their first major tournament in eight years as an independent nation.
The Serbs, who axed coach Slavoljub Muslin after qualifying for Russia 2018 due to what were deemed unconvincing displays, have yet to name his successor with caretaker Mladen Krstajic widely touted as the man to take over on a permanent basis.
The squad includes three survivors from the 2010 tournament in South Africa, when Serbia made a group stage exit and then failed to qualify for the next three major finals.
Captain Branislav Ivanovic, 33, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, 34, and defender Aleksandar Kolarov, 32, are set to lead a pack of younger players, with 29-year-old midfield enforcer Nemanja Matic also part of the team's backbone.
Serbia advanced from Europe's Group D ahead of Ireland and Wales thanks to clinical finishing, while looking shaky at the back as they rode their luck in many of the key games.
Winger Dusan Tadic led the charge in the first half of the campaign and, when his form dipped, Stojkovic and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic made sure there was to be no twist of fortune in the home straight.
Muslin stuck to his 3-4-3 formation, rather than switch to 4-3-3, or include promising talent but his assistant Krstajic made the tactical U-turn on becoming interim coach last month.
Former defender Krstajic fielded a pack of young players in recent friendlies against China and South Korea, led by crafty Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who is reportedly being sized up by several European giants.
Even a kind draw would present Serbia with a tough task to advance to the last 16 but they will at least be expected to play eye-catching football.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editng by Ken Ferris)