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Saturday 10 December 2016

Revived Serbia have leaders Ireland in their sights for 2017

Wales’ Gareth Bale in action with Serbia’s Nemanja Matic
Wales’ Gareth Bale in action with Serbia’s Nemanja Matic

So now we know where the real threat is from.

It's not the men from the Valleys of Wales, or those talented but weak-hearted lads from Vienna, but instead the big obstacle between Ireland and Russia comes from the Balkans.

Belgrade, just-about equidistant between Dublin and Moscow, is now the key staging point on Ireland's road to the 2018 World Cup.

Austria are all but out of the race for qualification and Wales are struggling to rediscover the legs they had at Euro 2016 (in their last three qualifiers, Wales have been in front early in the first half but have drawn all three).

But Serbia are the emerging force in the group, though they look enviously at table-toppers Ireland.

Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic
Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic

"We are still in the race for first place in the group and we will give everything we have until the end," says Chelsea's Nemanja Matic, Serbia in friendly action in Ukraine last night.

"We're not on top but that's not a disaster for us, we have lots of games to play and anything is possible. We need to get as many points now as we can and get to Russia, that's all that counts."

The worry for Ireland is that, while Wales and Austria flounder, Serbia appear to be finding form.

They began with a 2-2 draw at home to Ireland which earned the players a fair bit of criticism at home, they built on that with a comfortable 3-0 win in Moldova, but really got their campaign back on track with a 3-2 win at home to Austria, so last week's 1-1 draw away to Wales, Serbia coming from behind to earn a point, has placed them in a good position into 2017.

The focus here in Ireland is on that March date with the Welsh in Dublin but Serbia are playing more of a long-ball game. Slavoljub Muslin's side would fully expect to get nine points from their next three qualifiers: Georgia away in March, Wales at home in June and then a meeting with Moldova in Belgrade in September, four days before their trip to Dublin to face Ireland.

Fans in the Balkans are a fickle lot, and they're not always the nicest bunch: when Bosnia played away to Greece last Sunday, the Bosnian players were greeted with the sight of banners mocking the massacre of Srebrenica, with the Greek FA forced to issue a public apology. It's still unclear if the banners were the work of Serbians inside the stadium or just some lunatic Greeks who feel a bond with their Orthodox cousins but it was still embarrassing.

Serbian support was not a problem for Ireland when Martin O'Neill's side played in Belgrade in September, as the 45,000-capacity stadium had only 7,000 punters in - a rain-soaked Belgrade was more of a damp squib than a cauldron of hate.

Supporters seem to be picking up on the side's progress, though, as for Serbia's next home qualifier (Austria) the crowd had doubled to 15,000.

"After their win in Austria Ireland are ahead but the battle to get to Russia has not really started yet," said captain Branislav Ivanovic.

"There are a lot of games to be played but we are on the right road and I think we'll show we have the motivation and the ability to do the job," added the Chelsea player.

And there's more to come - Serbia's U21s have won the last six games in a row.

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