- Serbia’s Luka Milivojevic sets sights on Russia 2018 knockout stage
- Heads to the FIFA World Cup with exceptional penalty record
- Crystal Palace captain became a national team regular in qualifying
In the pressure cooker atmosphere of a FIFA World Cup™ shoot-out, a penalty-taker with nerves of steel and unshakeable confidence is an invaluable asset.
Serbia look to have that in Luka Milivojevic. In 15 months at Crystal Palace the defensive midfielder has already buried nine penalties, missing just one. This is hardly a long-honed attribute of his game, either, with Milivojevic having not scored from 12 yards professionally prior to his move to London. Instead, it was simply a matter of necessity.
“I practiced free-kicks a lot when Sam Allardyce was the manager and I was pretty successful in training,” the 27-year-old explained, talent he put to great use at Olympiakos in Greece and shown flashes of in England. “I think we were struggling with penalties as we had missed some in the past, and in a meeting in front of all the players, the manager asked me if I was confident enough to take them.”
Milivojevic has let his right foot do the talking ever since, answering his former boss with a resounding 'yes'. Now, he will look to take his sharpshooting skills from the English Premier League to the World Cup.
On a high
Serbia head to Russia with dreams of escaping the group stages for the very first time as an independent nation, with the Palace man now a solid fixture of their setup. Having operated on the fringes of the squad in late 2012, Milivojevic found a home at the heart of their midfield under Slavoljub Muslin in qualifying and will be hoping that trend continues under Mladen Krstajic.
“I think [reaching the World Cup] is the biggest thing in my career so far,” he said, following a group stage exit at South Africa 2010. “It’s hard to get into, especially for teams from Europe. We had some good group matches and we qualified top of it, so I’m very excited to get to Russia.”
Milivojevic's quality was recognised at an early age, when he was plucked from FK Rad to cross-town giants Red Star Belgrade by none other than former Yugoslavia and Croatia star Robert Prosinecki, with his leadership skills shining brightly. A mixed spell at Belgian heavyweights Anderlecht then preceded his move to Greece, where his career really took off.
A race for second
Now in south London, he has remained on that trajectory, already sporting the captain’s armband as Palace recovered from a dire start to the season to comfortably stay in the top flight under former England boss Roy Hodgson. His settled look on the pitch replicates his feelings off it. “If you are happy outside of football, it can help you with your confidence,” he explained.
Krstajic will hope Milivojevic transports that confidence east, as reaching the knockout stages will be no pushover being paired with Costa Rica, Switzerland and a hotly-tipped Brazil. “The group is very strong,” the tough-tackling midfielder, who has 26 caps to date, admitted.
“When you're playing against Brazil, you’re playing against the best national team in the world. They’re going to be favourites to win the World Cup, but I’m very excited to play against them.”
Expectations are high back home that they can find their way through, though. “I read in some Serbian newspapers that Brazil will be first in the group, we will be second, and then it’ll be Switzerland and Costa Rica. But I think people from Switzerland and Costa Rica will think the same as us,” Milivojevic conceded.
“If we finish second in the group, that will be a huge success for our national team, and even if we do we might then have to play against Germany!”
With the reigning champions having won their last six penalty shoot-outs, Serbia may end up thanking their lucky stars they have someone with no hang-ups about placing the ball on the spot.