New coach Antic has Serbs dreaming of South Africa

Vladimir Novak in Belgrade
When the FA appointed Radomir Antic last August, there were those who were sceptical. Once again, they said, the FA had chosen a foreign-based manager – Antic lives in Spain – and one who hadn’t coached for four years.

Still, there were far more people who were convinced that Antic – who guided Atletico Madrid to the 1996 double in Spain and who later coached both Real Madrid and Barcelona – was the right man to lift the national side after a disappointing Euro 2008 qualifying campaign under Javier Clemente and the disastrous reign of Miroslav Djukic.

However, not even the wildest optimists believed Dejan Stankovic, Nemanja Vidic and co would take 18 points from seven matches in a World Cup qualifying group that contains France, Romania, Austria, Lithuania and Faroe Islands.

After three wins in four away games (3-1 in Austria, 3-2 in Romania and 2-0 at Faroe Islands), Serbia are now close to winning the group. A draw against France would be enough, provided six points are taken from Romania and Lithuania, while they need just one point from their final three matches to secure a play-off spot.

Apart from the good results, Serbia have played well – with the exception of the second half in Paris and the home game against Austria – impressing with their attacking football and a quick-passing game.

“One of my main aims will be that Serbia’s national team mustn’t be inferior in any game, not even against the strongest opponents. We must show authority,” stated Antic after taking charge, and the best example of this positive outlook was the away game against Romania in March.

In the build-up to the match, where it was logical to expect that the hosts would attack from the first minute as it was their last chance to save their qualifying campaign, almost everybody thought that Antic would opt for a more cautious formation. Instead he changed nothing. Serbia played with two strikers (Marko Pantelic and Nikola Zigic) and two wingers (Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic) and won 3-2.

In the 3-1 win over Austria the Serbs played cat and mouse with their hosts, while in Paris (where they lost 2-1) they dominated the first half and who knows how it would have ended if Serbia had taken their chances.

In a nutshell, under the guidance of the charismatic Antic, Serbia look a different team. Such a turnaround is reminiscent of the revival of Russia with Guus Hiddink.

“I told the players, first of all, to behave in a patriotic way,” Antic says. “Because they must always know that our whole nation stands behind them.

“I would say that so far our biggest victory was the 50,000 fans who filled the stadium for our game against Austria. Also, I think we have a sporting discipline which makes the difference. If you don’t have discipline, you have anarchy.”

The same team
With the exception of new players such as Ivan Obradovic, Neven Subotic and new Wolves signing Nenad Milijas, it’s practically the same team which struggled for three years under Clemente and Djukic. While the Serbian media have hailed Antic as the person most responsible for the recent successes, the coach has repeatedly said that “to South Africa we will go from Belgrade”, referring to victories needed in the remaining home fixtures against France and Romania.

However, as is often the case when the results are good and the mood is euphoric, there is little space to note the potential weak points and problems of this team.

Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic has done his job well so far, but he has been a substitute at all his clubs (Nantes, Vitesse, Sporting Lisbon, Getafe), while right-back Branislav Ivanovic is actually a central defender so his contributions in build-up play and attacks have been rather limited. That said, his three goals, all from set-pieces, have made the Chelsea defender Serbia’s top scorer in the qualifiers, along with Jovanovic.

Antic gave a debut to 20-year-old Dortmund central defender Subotic and it seems that he will persist with him alongside Nemanja Vidic, even though Subotic’s displays have been nervous. And – while the team play with fantastic attitude, tactical discipline and fighting spirit – neither Milijas or Stankovic are classic holding midfielders. Against big teams the current system could be a problem.

Nevertheless, if Antic can sort out these problems, or if circumstances change – if Stojkovic gets a stable position at a new club, if Subotic can throw off his stage fright – then Serbia are sure to celebrate a happy ending to the World Cup qualifying campaign.