Friday 21 October 2016

Medal-laden Chelsea man Branislav admires Irish strength

Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic
Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic

The duel happened while he was wearing the blue shirt of his club and not the red one of his national team, but Branislav Ivanovic enjoyed his last tussle with an Irish footballer, his Chelsea side breezing past Stephen Ward's Burnley 3-0 in the Premier League last week.

This Serbian squad is a confident bunch, and hope for the World Cup qualifiers is that things won't be as bad as they have been in recent, dismal, qualifying campaigns but they're still not expecting such as easy ride as Ivanovic had that time.

They're not quite running scared of the Irish, but there is a sense here, as the squad trained in the sun at their shiny new HQ outside Belgrade, that Martin O'Neill's side pose a threat. That threat is probably no greater than that of Wales or Austria, but a threat all the same. "Maybe this isn't something I should be saying ahead of the match, but we will be concentrating a lot on them," says Ivanovic, Serbia's captain, when asked about the danger posed by Irish forward Shane Long and Jon Walters.


"They are the kind of players who don't need a second for defenders to have a lapse in concentration. They make things difficult from start to finish."

In the past, Serbia - or Yugoslavia - have been able to lord it over the boys in green when it came to quality, boys against men at times.

When the teams last met, in a friendly in Dublin in 2014, the Serbian side had more players who were Premier League regulars at top clubs than Ireland (Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic started for Serbia in a 2-1 win in Ireland).

Suspension keeps Kolarov and Matic out of the side for tonight's game, giving their well-travelled boss Slavoljub Muslin (20 managerial jobs in eight different countries for the 63-year-old) a tougher task in fielding a side capable of taking points from Ireland.

"Ireland are a very, very difficult opponent. They are an opponent that needs to be respected, that demands respect, and what I am especially impressed about is their level of continuity," added Ivanovic, unbeaten in his three appearances to date against Ireland.

"They have been playing together for a while, there's a nice mix of young players and players with experience, and it might be the fact that I have played in the Premier League for so long that I understand how difficult an opponent Ireland really is.

"They are aggressive and they make up for any faults that the team might have by giving their all every second, and each of the players - and especially the two that you mentioned - are very difficult to defend against."

With seven major trophies to show for his time at Chelsea, including Premier League and Champions League medals, Ivanovic has a CV that his Irish counterparts can only dream of, yet there was jealousy on his part that Ireland played at Euro 2016 while Serbia stayed at home.


"Of course, the biggest disappointment for a player and for a professional is not to be at the highest level of competition at major competitions like European Championships, like the World Cup, and we are the ones who are most to blame for this," he says of the current squad.

"Of course, there were a couple of moments and a couple, of situations that were not up to us and that were not our fault, but these things happen and I think we are ready to go forward now.

"As someone who has played in the Premier League for so long, I know that this is a difficult opponent and there are some difficult opponents in this group, but I also recognise the quality that Ireland and Wales and other teams like this have and I'm not surprised that they made it to the European Championships."

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