By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – Having qualified for their first major tournament since the 2010 World Cup, Serbia sacked coach Slavoljub Muslin to make way for debutant Mladen Krstajic who vowed to inject fresh blood in their bid to reach the knockout stages in Russia.
The Serbians advanced from a tight group ahead of Ireland, Wales and Austria after results which sometimes flattered their performances, prompting the country’s FA to part ways with Muslin straight after clinching a berth in the finals.
The 64-year-old journeyman came to loggerheads with his bosses for refusing to include several young talents in the squad, notably versatile midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who is being sized up by Europe’s top clubs.
Krstajic, who will make his competitive debut as head coach when Serbia take on Costa Rica in their Group E opener in Samara on June 17, called up the Lazio playmaker and other prospects for warm-up matches.
Serbia blew hot and cold in the friendlies as Krstajic, who switched from Muslin’s unorthodox 3-4-3 to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, tried a range of players and strategies.
After a 2-0 win over China and a 1-1 draw with South Korea in November, Serbia suffered a 2-1 defeat by Morocco which drew stinging criticism by fans and pundits before an impressive 2-0 win over Nigeria in March.
With Brazil and Switzerland also in their group, the Serbians face a tricky path to the last 16.
Serbia face the Swiss in Kaliningrad on June 27 and meet Brazil in Moscow five days later.
The squad includes three survivors from the 2010 team who flattered to deceive as they made a group-stage exit after defeats by Ghana and Australia nullified a shock 1-0 win over eventual semi-finalists Germany.
Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic and defenders Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov are the ageing backbone of a side that also includes Manchester United enforcer Nemanja Matic and Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Milinkovic-Savic, Benfica winger Andrija Zivkovic and Eintracht Frankfurt forward Mijat Gacinovic are the young lions who should up the team’s energy levels, with Dusan Tadic and Adem Ljajic expected to provide width.
Lack of experience on the big stage and a shaky defence likely to miss injured centre-back Matija Nastasic are Serbia’s weaknesses which their rivals will look to exploit.
Nastasic faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a cruciate knee ligament injury and is highly doubtful for the June 14-July 15 tournament in Russia.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ed Osmond)