Serbia-Montenegro expect to survive

We can become the biggest surprise of the tournament, says coach

Belgrade, May 18 :

Serbia-Montenegro will go to Germany with a primary goal — to pull off a surprise and survive the toughest group at this year’s World Cup.

Group C also includes two title contenders — Argentina and the Netherlands — plus the Didier Drogba-led Ivory Coast. All are better-placed teams than Serbia-Montenegro in FIFA’s world rankings.

But Serbia-Montenegro, unbeaten and only conceding one goal in qualifying, is full of confidence after reducing Spain to a playoff spot in European qualifying.

Some players are already counting on how to survive, with striker Mateja Kezman of Atletico Madrid and defender Mladen Krstajic of Shalke believing they have the formula. “We draw with Holland and Argentina in our first two matches, and than we beat the Ivory Coast,” said Kezman, who scored five goals in qualifying.

Krstajic added: “It is good that we first play with the Dutch and the Argentines. We’ll try not to lose against them, as that would shake them up and put some fear into their legs.”

Formerly known as Yugoslavia, the team last qualified for the World Cup in 1998, reaching the round of 16 before being beaten by the Netherlands.

Serbia-Montenegro earned its eighth trip to soccer’s biggest event, but the first — and probably last — under the new name. Montenegro, which has no major players on the World Cup roster, is likely to split from Serbia in an independence referendum on May 21.

The Serbia-Montenegro team is based on defence, with Krstajic and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic at the heart of it.

Kezman, formerly of Chelsea, is the focus of the attack which carries an aerial threat in the 2.02-metre (6-foot-6) Nikola Zigic, nicknamed the “Big Gun.” Zigic is reportedly being sought by Arsenal and other major English, Italian and German teams.

A lack of midfield creativity could be the team’s downfall. It will rely heavily on Inter Milan’s Dejan Stankovic and Predrag Djordjevic of Greek champion Olympiakos to create chances for the strikers.

Serbia-Montenegro coach Ilija Petkovic has transformed the team. He has replaced its past flamboyant style — which earned it the name “European Brazilians,” but brought little international success — with a squad that plays tight in defence and rarely loses.

“All 11 players have to play their part in defending,” Petkovic said. “The forwards must defend the midfield, the midfielders must keep running and thinking about closing down the opponent’s strikers.”

Petkovic believes his standard “magnificent four” defenders — Krstajic, Vidic, Goran Gavrancic and Ivica Dragutinovic — are “the best in the world.” “Defending is not the main part of our mentality, attacking is,” Petkovic conceded. But if we get results this way, I don’t want to change anything.” Petkovic said “a strong collective spirit” would be the main strength of his team at the World Cup.

“We want to show everyone that Serbia-Montenegro still exists on the map of the world,” Petkovic said. “With that spirit, we can become the biggest surprise of the tournament.”