Serbia made a rapid start to their FIFA U-20 World Cup semi-final against Mali on Wednesday, taking a fourth-minute lead through Andrija Zivkovic and swamping their opponents with a high-energy pressing game. Every time a yellow shirt was in possession, two or three red jerseys swarmed around, eagerly challenging for the ball and springing forward as soon as they had regained it.
The problem for Serbia was they could not maintain the pace of their whirlwind start, having already played two leg-sapping ties in the previous seven days. Eventually, the Africans recovered their poise and pulled level before half-time through Youssouf Kone. As their energy levels dropped and the game dragged on, the Serbians also found themselves fighting a mental battle, with memories of their penalty-shootout exit in the semi-finals of last year’s UEFA European U-19 Championship still playing on their minds.
“There was a moment or two when I was worried that the same thing would happen to us as at the European Championships, when we lost to Portugal in the last four,” explained Serbia’s goalkeeper and captain Predrag Rajkovic in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Even so, I never lost faith in my team. In the end, we played better than we did a year ago, and we got the win that keeps us in the competition.”
After seeing his side overcome the most exacting of mental and physical challenges, Serbia coach Veljko Paunovic voiced his satisfaction and looked ahead to the final against Brazil: “My team went through a rough patch after conceding that goal and had to fight hard to recover. Mali have a lot of energy and they were playing well too.
“It’s a physical battle for us now after three straight matches that have gone to extra-time, though I think we’ll be OK for the final because you don’t need any extra motivation for a game like that. We’re making history here, and having the incentive of winning the trophy will give the players the energy they need to recover from this game.”
With penalties looming, Ivan Saponjic rose from the bench to nod in the winner in the first half of extra-time, a goal gratefully celebrated by his jubilant team-mates, among them Rajkovic.
“We scored early and then switched off to let them equalise, which meant we had to start playing again,” said the tall keeper. “We gave it all we had in extra-time, like we always do, and we made it in the end.”
Taking stock of their achievement in reaching the final, Rajkovic added: “I’ve believed in the team since the start of this tournament and I believed in them the whole time during this game too. I didn’t need to say anything special to them. It was a semi-final after all. All we needed to know was that we were just a step away from the final. Now we’re going to focus on the match against Brazil, the most important of our lives.”
That match takes place on Saturday in Auckland, where the Serbians will face a side that has won the competition on no fewer than five occasions. Not that Rajkovic is letting that worry him.
“Brazil are a great side, one of the best in the world, without doubt," he said. "It’s a one-off game, though, and it will all come down to the little things that can happen on the pitch.”
Having battled through three consecutive ties that have gone the distance and laid to rest an old ghost in the process, Serbia can now look forward to a well-deserved final date at North Harbour Stadium. Pointing to the belief that has sustained them throughout the tournament, a delighted Rajkovic said: “We arrived in New Zealand believing we could be champions, and now that we’ve gone through every round and we’re just a step away, we still believe it.”