Serbia coach Radomir Antic is confident his team will be able to cope with the "huge psychological pressure" they are set to encounter as they begin their FIFA World Cup™ campaign against Ghana in Pretoria tomorrow.
Playing in their first finals as an independent nation, Serbia will be determined to get off to a good start against Ghana, with matches against Germany and Australia to come in Group D. But, with it being their opening appearance of the tournament, Antic admits there will be additional pressure on the players.
"The beginning of the World Cup is when we think about many things -- we fight against Ghana but also ourselves," he said. "We have great ambitions and the first game is a game with huge psychological pressure, as always."
However, Antic believes that the club successes that some of his players have enjoyed over the last few years will stand them in good stead. The likes of Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic, Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United, Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic and Standard Liege forward Milan Jovanovic have all enjoyed trophy-winning campaigns in recent years.
"We are a team comprised of champions, players who know how to play under great pressure," said the vastly experienced Antic, who replaced Miroslav Djukic as head coach barely two weeks before Serbia's opening qualifier back in 2008.
"Ever since I became coach, each year our players have managed to win 10 trophies, which means that my players know how to play well when they have to. The important thing is to know how to play under pressure. For me, my players are champions."
Antic has a fully-fit squad at his disposal, with the players all eagerly wanting the action to begin. "What our team wants is for the World Cup to finally start and I can tell you that all the guys on the list are more than well prepared," the former Real Madrid and Barcelona coach said.
"They have no physical difficulties and we have a squad of 23 players I can count on. Of course, our opponents are a very good team -- four times winners of the African Nations Cup and winners of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (2009). Ghana also reached the final of the African Nations Cup this year, but I believe in my players. I have faith in them.
"I'm also very content with the conditions in which this game will take place. The pitch is very good, conditions are very good and I'm sure that it will be a true and good game."
While Antic has a full complement to choose from for tomorrow's encounter at the Loftus Versfeld stadium, Ghana must do without their star player Michael Essien for the whole tournament. The 27-year-old Chelsea midfielder missed a large part of last season due to knee and ankle injuries and had hardly played any competitive football since December before finally being ruled out of the FIFA World Cup last month.
Antic believes Essien's absence is a blow for Ghana but thinks the African side, who are coached by his friend and fellow Serbian Milovan Rajevac, will be a difficult opponent nonetheless. "It's true he (Essien) is a very good player but it's also true he hasn't been playing for the last six months," said Antic.
"He's a player who not only has good footballing abilities but he is also a good leader. The fact he's not going to play means Ghana have had a new problem but I think they've overcome this problem during the warm-up games.
"As I said before, Ghana have won four African Nations Cups, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup...this is a squad that is in very good shape and this is a team which knows how to attack their opponents when one-on-one. This is a team that is very confident and I'm sure tomorrow we will face a very strong rival."
When asked if he would settle for a draw from the match, with both of the opening two games of the tournament finishing deadlocked yesterday, Antic added: "I don't know. Before the game I will say I wouldn't, but each game has its pros and cons and the important thing is not only to participate but to win."