Jack: Croatia end Serbia's World Cup hopes in Belgrade

Kristian Jack
9/6/2013 7:48:48 PM
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The city of Belgrade is used to hosting electric games of football. After all, the Eternal derby between Serbia's two most popular clubs, Red Star and Partizan, is one of the most intense rivalries in the sport.

However, Friday's visit of Croatia in a pivotal World Cup qualifier took the city's footballing history to a new level. Twenty years ago, these two nations were fighting off the field in a brutal civil war, and for the first time since then, Serbia hosted their hated rivals in a heated matchup from Group A of UEFA's qualifying process for Brazil 2014.

Much of the talk coming in was about reconciliation between the two teams, despite the plot lines unearthing deep, thick wounds.

Serbian boss Sinisa Mihajlovic and his Croatian counterpart, Igor Stimac, played together for Yugoslavia, winning the 1987 World Youth Cup, but were then both famously sent off in the brutal final of the 1991 Yugoslavia Cup playing for their respective clubs, Red Star and Hajduk Split.

In the first meeting between the two countries back in March, Croatia beat Serbia 2-0 and at the end of the match, the two coaches hugged each other in a sign fences were being mended between the two men, and, perhaps, between the countries.

However, shortly before kick off on Friday when the two captains, Branislav Ivanovic and Darijo Srna, tried to address the crowd with some words of peace, the locals made it known that they had no interest in their plan.

This game was all that was left now for the home team and their fans. Mihajlovic's side have had a disastrous qualifying campaign and needed to win their remaining three games, and have Croatia lose their last three, to get second place in the group. It was a dream for every Serbian football fan but never a reality.

In a chaotic and feisty game, Serbia were by far the better side. A back four consisting of three Premier League players - Ivanovic, Matija Nastasic and Aleksandar Kolarov, plus Borussia Dortmund's Neven Subotic (Nemanja Vidic is one of a few players who isn't playing for his country due to the atmosphere the manager has created with some strong rules and principles) were rarely threatened in the first half as their young forwards caused Croatia many problems.

Lazar Markovic, now of Benfica, was the brightest of their young trio up front and showcased some outstanding movement and strength on the ball. Jose Mourinho was in attendance and it was no surprise that rumours suggested he was there to watch the 19-year-old, who scored a fantastic goal for his side against Sporting Lisbon last week.

Croatia looked a very nervous, timid outfit, confused with their identity and what exactly Stimac wants his team to look like. With Luka Modric and the defensive-minded Ognjen Vukojevic in midfield, they got outrun by a more energetic home side through the middle. Sensing that, the impressive Ivan Rakitic, on the left, often needed to come inside to make up the numbers, but this exposed his flank and Zoran Tosic and right back Ivanovic often got the better of Southampton's Dejan Lovren, playing left back.

Serbia's best chances came from the right wing, highlighted by Tosic's shot saved by Stipe Pletikosa in the first half, and it was no surprise when Serbia scored in the second half from a free kick won by Ivanovic after more poor discipline from Lovren.

By then, though, Croatia had the lead and it had taken all of seven seconds to silence the electrifying atmosphere. In control of possession, once again, the home side's attack down the left was quickly intercepted by Srna, who immediately drove forward and slotted a perfect ball, splitting the stranded duo of Subotic and Nastasic.

Through the middle ran Mario Mandzukic and like all great finishers, the Bayern Munich made no mistake on a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, slotting home his first and only chance of the match.

Croatia barely deserved the lead and less than 15 minutes later, lost it for good when the impressive young forward Aleksandar Mitrovic rose high to send the home fans wild. The fans never sat down after that as the final quarter of the match reached the crescendo many expected, with both teams getting a man sent off. Referee Felix Brych did an outstanding job of keeping his cool while others around him were losing their's and when he blew the whistle for full time, he didn't just finish a match.

Gone now are Serbia's chances to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil and despite that being a formality for a month, that shouldn't make it less of a story than it is.

You have likely never heard of the football team Ludogorets.

Yet, when the Bulgarian side knocked out Serbian league champions Partizan Belgrade from the third qualifying round of the Champions League back in July, it represented a real low for Serbian football.

Days later, Red Star Belgrade lost their Europa League third round qualifying tie and to rub salt into the wound even more, Partizan, given one last chance at European football, lost to FC Thun in the final qualifying stage of that competition.

Belgrade, once home to giants sitting at the top table of European football, has been left out of the party completely. Now the national team, less than four years after defeating Germany at the World Cup in South Africa, will miss out on the party in Brazil. For a country that produces many talented players, including some of the finest defenders in the game today, that is simply not good enough and changes will be made, starting with a new manager for the 2016 European Championship qualifiers.

The final whistle also cemented Croatia's place in Group A. Leaders Belgium beat Scotland 2-0 to move five points clear with two matches to go, meaning Croatia's 1-1 draw on Friday leaves them in second place and a likely two-legged playoff game against another group runner-up to attempt to make it to Brazil. Despite not being able to realistically win the group, their next game against Belgium, who finish with a home match against Wales, will provide them with another acid test to see whether they are good enough to be amongst the best 13 in Europe.

June's loss to Scotland coupled with this underwhelming showing in Belgrade means the jury remains out on Croatia's qualifying hopes. They used the play-off system two years ago to make it Euro 2012 but Stimac's side still have a lot of question marks before anyone can say they are a team that deserves to be playing at next summer's World Cup.

They are not underachieving like Serbia, but they are not far off it.

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