How far can dark horses Serbia go at the 2022 World Cup?

Serbia will be heading into the 2022 World Cup filled with confidence, having stormed to the top of their qualifying group and indeed their recent UEFA Nations League campaign.

The country went through their World Cup Qualifying campaign unbeaten, winning six of their games and drawing the other two. They scored 18 goals in that time, behind only Belgium and level with France among nations who were competing in groups of five.

And it was by no means an easy group, with Euro 2016 and 2019 Nations League winner Portugal their main opposition. Belgrade hosted the first encounter, which ended in a 2-2 stalemate, with Serbia winning the second meeting 2-1 in Lisbon.

Lethal striker Aleksandar Mitrovic – who scored in both matches against Portugal – finished qualifying with eight goals. All three players who finished ahead of him in the top scorer standings – Harry Kane, Memphis Depay and Robert Lewandowski – were playing in groups of six nations, as opposed to Serbia’s group of five.

The Fulham man proved himself once more in the Nations League, finishing as joint-top scorer alongside a certain Erling Haaland. He also ended joint-top in the shots on target leaderboard with 13, again alongside a world-class talent in Kylian Mbappe.

Serbia also proved their worth, finishing first in League B Group 4 thanks to their four wins, one draw and one loss from their six games. They were outscored in the whole competition by only Turkey, Georgia and the Netherlands.

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Superb strikers shining for Serbia

One of the main reasons why Serbia have been so successful of late is, as mentioned, down to the presence of formidable forward Mitrovic. But he has an equally deadly strike partner alongside him in Dusan Vlahovic.

Vlahovic hasn’t exactly set the world alight since his big-money move from Fiorentina to Juventus in January 2022, but his record in Italy speaks for itself. At the age of just 22, he has already notched over 50 Serie A goals, with the striker already on six goals from 10 matches in the current campaign.

Importantly, the duo have proven they can play alongside one another. The same cannot be said for many talented strikers that have come and gone over the years. Both forwards were on the scoresheet in the final Nations League game against Norway in September.

Whether manager Dragan Stojkovic opts for a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation, he will be relying on his strike partnership to do some serious damage in Qatar. In potentially devastating news, however, both are carrying knocks going into the tournament. But more on that later…

Serbia ended the recent Nations League campaign with 34 shots on target, fourth in the list of all 55 countries that took part in the competition. In that list, the nation were one ahead of Belgium and just two behind France, two giants of European football in recent years.

Defending has certainly not been Serbia’s strong point, with the country conceding tallies of five and nine in the aforementioned Nations League and World Cup Qualifying campaigns. But it hasn’t mattered, largely thanks to the presence of the formidable front pairing.

Magnificent midfielders key

Again, it would be foolish to think that the recent success has only been down to the frontline, regardless of their abilities. Not that they needed a huge amount of help, but Mitrovic and Vlahovic are blessed with an extremely talented midfield behind them.

Former Southampton man Dusan Tadic, who is now in the Eredivisie with Ajax, finished joint-top of the assists chart of the recent Nations League campaign with four, with Serbia finishing top of the assists list for all 55 countries involved with 13.

The 33-year-old is now a very experienced European player, and is set to captain his country at the 2022 World Cup. He will be key to much of the creativity for Serbia in Qatar, adopting an attacking midfield role behind Mitrovic and Vlahovic.

And he’s not alone, with Lazio star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic also part of Serbia’s midfield. The central midfielder is well used to creating goals for club teammate Ciro Immobile, with both Mitrovic and Vlahovic replacing the tricky Italian striker on the international scene.

Vlahovic’s Juventus teammate Filip Kostic will also be a very real threat from the left. He finished top of the assists chart in the 2021/22 Europa League campaign, creating six goals as his then-Eintracht Frankfurt side lifted the trophy.

Of all the teams to have participated in the aforementioned Nations League campaign, Serbia were 11th overall for average possession with 57%, but seventh overall for their average passing accuracy of 87%, behind only the big hitters of Spain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Croatia.

Couple that with their 148 crosses attempted – second only to Slovakia’s 167 – and it’s clear that Serbia didn’t exactly always have the ball, but when they did, it was about accurate passes and firing it into the forwards as much as possible.

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Two roadblocks in way of Serbia success

Amid all the positives, there are two major barriers that are standing in the way of Serbia enjoying a lengthy run in Qatar. And they are both equally significant.

The first issue is the fitness of both Mitrovic and Vlahovic. The former missed Fulham’s last two matches of the Premier League campaign before the break for the World Cup due to an ankle injury, with the latter missing Juventus’ last four matches amid a groin injury.

Should both be given the all-clear to start, their match fitness will still be a real worry. Luka Jovic – once of Real Madrid and now with Fiorentina – will be more than ready to take his chance, but his presence doesn’t quite come close to that of either Mitrovic or Vlahovic.

And the second barrier is the small matter of Serbia’s first match at the 2022 World Cup. They meet five-time champions and strong favourites Brazil in the opening game. The South Americans are looking solid at the back and extremely dangerous going forward, and they will certainly be wanting to kick their campaign off with a win.

Even if Serbia do manage to get something against Brazil, their remaining group fixtures against Cameroon and Switzerland are by no means easy matches.

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