Serbia v Northern Ireland: White Eagles set to ruffle feathers
Stepping out at the empty home of Red Star Belgrade may not be the most normal or inspiring of circumstances when Northern Ireland play Serbia on Friday — but the fired-up hosts are keen to put waves of negative publicity and indifferent form behind them.
Vladimir Petrovic’s men are paying a heavy price due to the unsavoury behaviour of a section of Serbian fans, which caused the abandonment of their tie against Italy after just six minutes in Genoa last October.
Now, in the absence of an excitable, volatile, crowd, Northern Ireland find themselves tasked with achieving another away success in an eerie Stadion Crvena Zvezda — save for the small number of representatives of the Green and White Army who will travel.
The Beli Orlovi (White Eagles), ranked 20th in the world by FIFA, feature names familiar to English Premier League enthusiasts. Consequently, expectations are high in the Balkan country that Nigel Worthington’s side will be accounted for.
Aleksandar Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic, Nenad Milijas, Nikola Zigic all ply their trade with Manchester City, Chelsea, Wolves and Birmingham City respectively. While Manchester United enforcer Nemanja Vidic is injured, striker Milan Jovanovic — still to make an impact at Liverpool since his switch last summer from Standard Liege — is a prolific scorer for the Serbs.
Northern Ireland, though, will prefer to study the example of group rivals Estonia, who have already won in Belgrade.
Although Serbia did make it into the World Cup last year — eliminated in the group stages — they have not featured in the Euros since reaching the quarter-finals in 2000.
Having begun this campaign slowly and awkwardly, this remains a team with points to attain and a little sense of injustice to overcome.
That much-publicised fan trouble cost the Serbs twofold; the empty arena plus a 3-0 victory awarded to Italy, which leaves them a point behind Northern Ireland with four points from four games. Victory, however, will drive Serbia back into the frame.
Plenty of potential issues ahead for Worthington, then, as Northern Ireland hope to emulate their 1-0 win in Slovenia.
Partizan Belgrade star and Serb international Stefan Babovic insists Serbia can qualify for next year’s tournament in Poland/Ukraine, despite the impressive Italians heading Group C.
“We had a few problems off the field with our fans in Italy, but now it is very important that we put all that behind us and go on and win,” Babovic explained.
“Northern Ireland are a good team but to be honest, I feel at the moment we have better players than them in every position.
“It will be a strange game for us as it is the first game after the suspension but it will be a test for us. I am looking forward to it.
“We have a strong team, especially in defence with players who are very valuable to us like Kolarov and Ivanovic. It is traditionally the strongest part of our squad.
“It is great for the country that we have quite a few players in the English Premier League, which I think is the best in the world. It is where we all want to play,” added Babovic.
Serbia manager Petrovic, who took over the top post last September, was an elegant midfielder in his day, with a brief spell at Arsenal in the early Eighties.
As a Yugoslav international, he also came up against Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup finals. He is, evidently, a boss who likes football to be played in his own image.
And former Feyenoord and Nantes man Babovic added: “He has done quite a few things differently since taking over already.
“We have now become more offensive, more aggressive under him.
“He was the type of player who liked to play creative, attacking football and we remember that
from his days at Arsenal and when he played for Yugoslavia. He has brought that belief into management too, so you are now beginning to see a different Serbia.”
Babovic feels that the time has come for Serbia to shrug off their disappointments and move forward, beginning with victory over Northern Ireland on Friday night.
He says: “It is a difficult moment for us just now, because of the points (sanctioning) and everything.
“Of course, though, the country has big expectations of us and the fans expect us to qualify from the group.
“We are all very hopeful for the rest of the qualifying games and, like the supporters, I believe in destiny.
“We need to be ready for the difficult games ahead but we feel it is our destiny to go on and reach the finals.”
Northern Ireland will need the re-ignite the spirit of Slovenia, otherwise — ghostlike stadium or not — it could be a long night in Belgrade.