Serbia looks to Vlahović, Mitrović for goals at World Cup

Oct 26, 2022, 2:33 PM | Updated: Oct 27, 2022, 2:47 am
FILE - Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic, left, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during t...

FILE - Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic, left, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

              FILE - Serbia's Dusan Vlahovic misses a chance during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's coach Dragan Stojkovic gestures during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Norway at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Sweden's Isak Hien is challenged by Serbia's Dusan Vlahovic, right, during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Sweden's Viktor Gyokeres, left, and Serbia's Dusan Tadic battle for the ball during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, left, kicks the ball during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Norway at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's coach Dragan Stojkovic sits on the bench ahead of the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Slovenia and Serbia at Stozice stadium in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Sunday, June 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Luka Jovic, front, duels for the ball with Norway's Marcus Pedersen during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Norway at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic, center, scores his side's first goal past Sweden's goalkeeper Robin Olsen during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
            
              FILE - Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic, left, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Serbia and Sweden at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

Expect Serbia to have an impact on and off the field at the World Cup.

The attacking partnership of 22-year-old Dusan Vlahovic and one of the most prolific scorers in international soccer, Aleksandar Mitrovic, could cause fits for defenders.

Serbia is also heading for a rematch of a contentious game from the 2018 World Cup. Four years ago, political tensions appeared when Serbia lost to Switzerland, whose goals were both scored by players of Kosovan heritage. Serbia and Switzerland have been drawn into the same group again in 2022.

This will be the team’s third World Cup as Serbia but its 13th when records of the former Yugoslavia team are included. The team hasn’t gotten past the group stage since 1998.

After failing to qualify for last year’s European Championship, the potential for a deeper run in Qatar looks more promising for Serbia based on recent results. The team was unbeaten in qualifying for the World Cup, ahead of Portugal in its group, and won promotion this year from the second tier of the Nations League. Still, a 3-0 friendly loss to Denmark in March was a reminder of the limitations of a squad with plenty of talent in the midfield and on attack but vulnerable on defense.

Besides Switzerland, Serbia will face Brazil and Cameroon in Group G. Brazil was also in the group with the Serbs and the Swiss in Russia four years ago.

ATTACKING FIREPOWER

Vlahovic and Mitrovic work well together up front and score plenty of goals, with Mitrovic the first Serbian player to score 50 for his country. They will be backed up by Luka Jovic, once considered a star of the future and now rebuilding his career with Fiorentina after a failed stint at Real Madrid.

Dusan Tadic is the most experienced player in the squad and a vital link between midfield and the strikers, while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic can create and score goals from central midfield.

GRUDGE MATCH

A rivalry with famously neutral Switzerland might seem unlikely. The two countries don’t share a border and have little history of political tension.

Still, Serbia and Switzerland’s game at the last World Cup was contentious.

Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri made hand gestures representing the two-headed eagle from Albania’s flag after scoring goals, angering some Serbian fans and politicians. FIFA fined the players for the act. The governing body also fined Serbia for its fans’ “discriminatory banners and messages” and for throwing objects.

Xhaka and Shaqiri have ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize that independence.

Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic, nicknamed Pixi, has sought to play down the tension.

“I want to keep our national team as far as possible from politics,” he said recently. “As far as we are concerned, there will be no such crazy talk or similar problems.”

___

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Serbia looks to Vlahović, Mitrović for goals at World Cup