Northern Ireland v Serbia: Pressure on coach Petrovic
For a man supposedly under pressure, Serbian coach Vladimir Petrovic exuded an air of calm yesterday ahead of the most important match of his reign.
Whether he remains that way tonight amid the red-hot atmosphere of Windsor Park remains to be seen.
At his press conference in Belfast's Hilton Hotel, several times he declared his “respect” for the Northern Ireland side.
I wonder what words he'll use come 10pm this evening. “We were beaten by the better team,” would go down well.
As a player Petrovic was a gifted winger with Red Star Belgrade. He's one of five official legends of that famous club in an elite group cleverly titled ‘Stars of the Star.'
He played throughout Europe, including 13 games for Arsenal in the 1982-83 campaign, immediately after the World Cup finals in Spain where he was part of the Yugoslavia side that drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland.
It was a result that worked out better for Billy Bingham's men as they progressed to the next phase of the competition with Petrovic and Yugoslavia going home.
Following a similar path to when he was a player, he has managed all around the world, including the Chinese national team, taking charge of Serbia in September last year replacing the popular Radomir Antic, who led his nation to the World Cup in South Africa last year.
If Petrovic doesn't take Serbia to Euro 2012 — or at the very least make the play-offs — the man nicknamed ‘Pigeon' is likely to be told to fly away.
There's no doubt the pressure's on. Maybe that's why he insisted that Northern Ireland are favourites for tonight's Group C game.
“It is going to be very interesting, played at a stadium with a loud public putting great pressure on our team,” he said through an intepreter.
“Northern Ireland are favourites at home. We respect them and we will have to play at our best levels, but my players prefer to play in pressure situations like this.”
Asked about Nigel Worthington's dangermen, the 56-year-old took out a piece of paper with a list of names to reveal his team will place special focus on Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty and be wary of Grant McCann's corners, pointing to the threat of Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley in the box.
McAuley scored in Belgrade when the home side came from behind to win 2-1 after some canny substitutions from Petrovic.
Tonight he'll be without defender Nemanja Vidic, winger Milos Krasic and giant forward Nikola Zigic, but there is still plenty of talent to choose from such as Ajax's Miralem Sulejmani, Marko Pantelic, Zoran Tosic, Adem Ljajic and the outstanding skipper Dejan Stankovic.
“This is the biggest game of our campaign. I know that and so do my players,” added Petrovic.