Playoff Final Scouting Report - Serbia
Scotland have on occassion come close to qualifying for European and World Cup finals since 1998. At times all that has separated us from reaching a tournament final was 90 minutes of football, providing we got the job done.
If we had done however, the stakes would not be as high as they will be this Thursday during our EURO 2020 2021 Playoff Final. In the past, standing between our boys in blue and glory have been somewhat formidable opponents. England, The Netherlands and Italy are among those who we have fallen short against, undeniably some of the most challenging nations in European football.
Thankfully this time we will be facing up against a nation closer to our own level of prestige in Serbia, but by no means will this be an easy ride for Scotland, more likely a gritty fight to the final whistle with the eastern European outfit.
Ranked 30th in the world, Serbia are 15 places ahead of our men who have recently risen to 45th.
Looking at their recent attempts at qualifying for World Cups, Serbian fans have not had to endure the same painful wait which Scotland fans have. Since both Scotland and Yugoslavia as they were at the time, qualified for the France 1998 finals, Serbia have since made it to three World Cups (Germany 2006, South Africa 2010 and Russia 2018).
With regards to European Championship finals however they have only been waiting a little less than Scotland, having last qualified for EURO 2000. At the time they were still Yugoslavia as well so it could be noted that they have never actually been to a European Championship as ‘Serbia’.
Journey to the Play-off Final
Serbia have had to rely on the same passage to the finals as us, finishing top of their UEFA Nations League group undefeated, which included top seeds Romania as well as Montenegro and Lithuania.
With the playoff safety net in the bag, the Serbs finished their qualifying campaign exactly how the seeding would have predicted, in 3rd place narrowly missing out behind 1st place Ukraine and 2nd place Portugal, who were also 1st and 2nd seeded respectively.
After the disappointment of failing to qualify, they then had to overcome Norway in their play-off semi-final to keep their EURO 2020 dream alive. Norwegian sides of years gone by haven’t enjoyed much success with regards to qualifying for finals, having only ever qualified for World Cup’s in 1938, 1994 and 1998, and only for a European final in the year 2000. They have also lacked star studded names at times, but this match would not be one of them, with boy wonder and Dortmund striker Erling Håland leading the line. Assisted by the likes of Real Madrid starlet Martin Ødegaard, for many, Norway were favourites to win the fixture as well as to win the final, but it was not to be.
Just like our semi-final the affair could not be settled in regulation time, with the score at one apiece as extra time kicked off. Many would expect the first name on the team sheet for Serbia to be talented Lazio central midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić, and he really proved his worth that night as he scored not only their first but also their second goal to help win them the tie 2-1. The Norwegians were vanquished, and a final with the Scots awaited.
Serbian Form Book
Like Scotland, Serbia have found themselves in League B of the UEFA Nations League. They were drawn into a group with Russia, Hungary and Turkey, and are winless after four games sitting bottom of the table on 2pts. Having drawn with Turkey both home and away, they lost 3-1 to the Russians in Moscow and 1-0 to the Hungarians in Serbia.
Looking at the five games they have played since international football’s restart, with the exception of their victory over Norway, their form is less than convincing. Comparing that with Scotland’s is certainly one way to lure yourself into letting the dreaded hope creep back in.
Looking at the Serbian squad, they are certainly not one of Europe’s heavyweights, but by no means should they be underestimated. Throughout, they are a solid outfit with quality spanning a variety of leagues, including Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Liga. There has been confusion over who would be available and at the disposal of manager Ljubiša Tumbaković, after more covid-19 related drama coming from the Serie A. An announcement stating that players from numerous top-flight clubs could not travel due to coronavirus meant that there were significant doubts over whether some of their Serie A stars would be allowed to meet up with the national team.
Despite the lack of clarity after the announcement it would seem Serbia will still be at full strength for the play-off final. This will not have impacted Clarkes plans however as when asked on the matter, he stated it was only his intention to prepare for a match against the best Serbia has to offer.
Looking throughout their squad there is definitely some star men which Scotland will have to be wary of. As mentioned, Serie A midfield powerhouse Sergej Milinković-Savić of Lazio scored both goals in their semi-final victory over Norway. At 25, he is highly rated, but has only racked up 18 caps for his national side so scoring 3 goals in the process. Make no mistake though, winning battles in the middle of the park against Milinković-Savić will be key to getting a result in Belgrade.
For those of you who are familiar with English Premier League, Aleksandar Kolarov is a player who many will recognise. The former Manchester City man is now playing his football in the north of Italy for Inter Milan, having departed Roma in the summer. At 35 years old Kolarov is no spring chick, and given he is the oldest in the Serbian squad it is no surprise he is also the most capped player with 93 appearances for the Serbs. Regardless of his age he continues as a regular for Serbia as their captain, and most recently has been deployed on the left side of a back three.
For many, Serbia’s attacking threat is what should concern Clarke the most. Ajax attacker Dušan Tadić is another of their danger men, and he is one who people may recognise due to his time at Southampton. He has been busy since his move to the Dutch capital in 2018, scoring an impressive 62 goals in 109 games. He also played a significant role in their 2018/2019 Champions League campaign, as they defeated the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus to progress to the semi-finals, before they were unlucky to be knocked out by Tottenham Hotspur.
With 16 goals for Serbia, Tadić is second to only Aleksandar Mitrović who has the most international goals in the squad with 36, a tally only two goals behind Serbia’s all-time top scorer. Plying his trade at Craven Cottage, Mitrović is first choice striker at Fulham since moving from Newcastle United in 2018. This season in the Premier League he has started all eight games for Fulham, scoring two goals which both came in their 4-3 defeat to Leeds United.
Both are very experienced at international level and it would be a surprise if manager Tumbaković did not turn to them to lead the line against Clarkes men. Between them they have 130 caps for Serbia and this experience could be vital in a game of this magnitude.
Other notable individuals who Scotland can expect to meet are pacey Frankfurt winger Filip Kostić, Getafe midfielder Nemanja Maksimović who has started four of Serbia’s last five games and Hellas Verona winger Darko Lazović.
With regards to their manager, Ljubiša Tumbaković has been in charge of the national team since 2019, landing the job after he was sacked from his role as Montenegro manager. This dismissal occurred after he refused to take part in Montenegro’s match with Kosovo, with reports saying that he was put under pressure by the Serbian government to do so. Such behaviour obviously put him in good stead to go on and take charge of Serbia, given their stance on Kosovo and the associated politics around that matter.
It’s without a doubt that both teams will be desperate to win with so much at stake. However, it can be said for Serbia that they will be playing with slightly less pressure on them than Scotland. Clarkes men will carry the weight of knowing they are tasked with vanquishing the ghosts of failed attempts to qualify in years gone by, stretching 22 years into the past. Despite as mentioned not qualifying for the EURO’s since the turn of the millennium, Serbia were at the 2018 World Cup and therefore won’t feel the same pressure and weight of a nation watching from home, desperate to see their national side finally qualify for an international tournament.
Serbia will be a tough match. They have many good players at their disposal and Scotland will need to be at their best to get the job done. There will be many battles to be won all over the park, but coming out on top at the back and keeping it tight in defence should be top of Clarke’s priorities in order to keep Tadić and Mitrović at bay. In terms of where Serbia are weakest, their right side is an area of interest.
Given our wealth and quality in the left back area, this would provide an excellent opportunity for Andy Robertson to get forward and control the left flank.
It’s been too long since Scotland last qualified for an international final, and there has been many near misses along the way. We’ve been in this position before, only 90 minutes of football away from qualification, but this time instead of one of Europe’s giants in wait, it’s Serbia.
For some, Scotland go into this match second favourites but there isn’t too much between the two nations. Scotland have often rose to the occasion when wrote off as underdogs anyway, so the Tartan Army probable won’t mind Serbia being favourites.
22 years have come and gone, and by the summer of 2021 it will be 23. Let’s hope Clarkes men make the wait end there, by claiming a famous victory in Belgrade. Come on boys!