WCQ Preview: Serbia versus Romania

The emerging footballing powers of Eastern Europe are a common theme in my writings, but no nation has the better convergence of stars currently in their prime and young starlets than Serbia, who go into Saturday need two points to qualify for South Africa.

Serbia has never qualified for the World Cup. Serbia and Montenegro did (2006). The Republic of Yugoslavia did (1998), and the previous Yugoslavia Republic/Kingdom made two semifinal appearances. But Serbia, population just under ten million, is going to qualify, probably on Saturday.

In a group where France and Romania were the favorites to come out, Serbia leading this table is a small surprise, but when you see names like Stanković, Dragutinović, Ivanović, and Žigić, your “What?” should turn to “Oh, yeah.”

That list does not even include Serbia’s best player. In a recent conversation, a colleague and I started talking about the player who, on an international level, are most important to their teams. We started with Landon Donovan, quickly moved to Didier Drogba, but we missed the Serbian whose personal improvement has coincided with Serbia’s rise in Group 7.

Serbia has allowed only six goals in eight matches, thanks in large part to Nemanja Vidic. For Manchester United, playing along side Rio Ferdinand allows Vidic to play with an aggression that serves this instincts and athleticism. For his country, Vidic has to be a bit more judicious, balancing his best footballing traits with the need to be more disciplined. As Vidic has entered the prime of his career and brought Serbia into maturity with him, the national team has taken control of this group.

He is part of a veteran core that is bringing along the next generation of Serbian talent. Like the rest of the Eastern European emerging powers, Serbia has midfield talent in Zdravko Kuzmanović (22, Stuttgart), Zoran Tošić (22, Manchester United), and Gojko Kačar (22, Hertha Berlin). This is also the nation that Neven Subotić chose, having been capped five times in the last year.

Even if Romania, an aging squad that has underachieved in qualifying (fifth place, nine points, ten points behind Serbia), played their best, they would be hard pressed to reproduce the remarkable draw France got in Belgrade last round. This is not the same team that showed well in Euro 2008’s toughest group.

Serbia’s draw with France was the only home qualifier that they have not won. That will be the case Saturday night, after Serbia qualifies for South Africa. Expect the emotion of the match to help created a lop-sided result.

Prediction: Serbia, 3-0