The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia was a disappointing one for Serbia. After a 1-0 win in their opening match against Costa Rica, they then took an early lead against Switzerland courtesy of Aleksandar Mitrovic, only to have that overturned in a 2-1 defeat. That ramped up the pressure for their final group game against five-time champions Brazil, when a 2-0 defeat saw them finish third in their group and packing their bags for home.
The launch of the UEFA Nations League a few months later meant that they were back playing competitive matches soon after the World Cup, which for a country that had a disappointing time of things in Russia was the ideal way of righting the ship at the earliest possible juncture.
The Serbs managed to do just that, under the aegis of their young coach Mladen Krstajic, who was assistant to Slavoljub Muslin during the Russia 2018 qualifying phase before taking over the reins in the autumn of 2017.
Serbia went unbeaten in Division C of the UEFA Nations League where they faced Lithuania (1-0, 4-1), Romania (2-2, 0-0) and Montenegro (2-0, 2-1), earning them top spot and promotion to Division B for the next edition of the tournament.
As further reward, Serbia surged up six places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 29th spot and are back in the top 30 for the first time in four years, courtesy of that six-match unbeaten run since the World Cup.
The team looks a little different from the one which took part in the final phase in Russia. Centre midfield is now run by two defensively-minded players in the shape of Nemanja Maksimovic and Sasa Lukic, taking over from Nemanja Matic who has been plagued by injury.
Napoli’s Sergei Milinkovic-Savic was hoping to make a name for himself in Russia, but by the time the UEFA Nations League came around, Dusan Tadic was the one pulling the strings behind the forwards. The 30-year-old Ajax midfielder also scored his fifth and sixth goals in this season’s UEFA Champions League last night against Bayern Munich, having also found the net in the UEFA Nations League.
In central defence, Milos Veljkovic has been a regular since the Brazil game, with Nikola Milenkovic providing a solid presence alongside him, while Antonio Rukavina has taken over at the right full-back position from the legendary Branislav Ivanovic.
Adem Ljajic has been on the scoresheet twice, but the main man up front is still Fulham forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored six goals in as many matches in the UEFA Nations League – more than any other player in Europe. It could even have been more, as he missed a "Panenka"-style chipped penalty against Montenegro.
"Total commitment in every situation" is what Krstajic said he wanted from his superstar after that match, with the coach, who made a name for himself as a player with Schalke and Werder Bremen, knowing the value of discipline after a nine-year Bundesliga career. Mitrovic duly apologised for that "careless" mistake, and Krstajic was quick to then counter with some praise.
"Mitrovic has done a lot for this team," the 44-year-old coach said. "He is one of the best footballers in the Nations League to date and has scored a lot of goals. He’s also the one who got us to the World Cup." Indeed, with a goal-getter of the calibre of Mitrovic in the team, Krstajic has chosen to do without Luka Jovic, who has been one of the star forwards in the Bundesliga this season with ten goals and five assists.
"I’m very proud to be coaching my country," Krstajic concluded. "It's a wonderful feeling to be in this position with that kind of responsibility. The best part is when everything goes well, meaning that everyone is happy. Being Serbia’s national coach is not an easy task. The team is still young and I’ve only recently become a coach myself." That may be the case, but together they are heading towards a bright future.