What to Expect from Serbia at EURO 2024

The Serbian national team has ridden the highs and the lows of international football over the last few years. They had a phenomenal 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, going unbeaten, then defeating Portugal 2-1 in Lisbon to advance to the final tournament. In the meantime, Orlovi finished top of their UEFA Nations League group to earn promotion to League A.

Yet ever since this spectacular stretch of form, the Serbs have faltered. They earned just one point in the World Cup group stage, squandering leads against both Cameroon and Switzerland (again). To the dismay of many, manager Dragan Stojković Piksi stayed on, and guided Serbia through a topsy-turvy Euro qualification cycle.

The side finished second in their group, behind Hungary and just clear of Montenegro. It was enough to send Serbia through to the Euros for the first time as an independent nation, but expectations are lower than ever. No longer a “dark horse,” can Serbia hope to achieve anything in Germany this summer?

Talent Aplenty at the Back

One look at Piksi’s final 26-man squad for the Euros will reveal just how much talent Serbia has right now. In the goalkeeper position alone, the Serbs boast three top-drawer players. Vanja Milinković-Savić of Torino played well in the World Cup despite the outcome and is no stranger to the big stage. Predrag Rajković had a solid season at Mallorca and put on a stellar performance against Sweden in a friendly last Saturday, making nine saves and keeping a clean sheet in a 3-0 win. Chelsea’s Djordje Petrović has been the goalkeeping find of the year and is another great choice for between the sticks.

The defence has been Serbia’s weakest point for some time now, but not for lack of individual quality. Strahinja Pavlović of Red Bull Salzburg is the engine of the back line, his ruthless playstyle drawing comparisons to Nemanja Vidić. Nikola Milenković made 49 appearances for Fiorentina this season and has 53 national team caps to his name. The Serbian Super Liga also supplies solid centre-backs in Nemanja Stojić and Uroš Spajić. For some reason though, the defensive cohesiveness just hasn’t been there.

World-Class in Midfield and Attack

Serbia’s midfielders are some of the biggest names in world football. Sergej Milinković-Savić was one of the best players in Serie A for years and has been dominant for Saudi outfit Al Hilal since his transfer. Saša Lukić had something of a breakout season at Fulham, while Filip Kostić was once again a fixture in the Juventus lineup. The latter features at wing-back in the Serbian setup, but is still recovering from a recent injury.

The strike partnership of Dušan Vlahović and Aleksandar Mitrović is the deadliest on the planet on a good day. Vlahović hasn’t been particularly prolific at Juventus, but that’s largely due to Massimiliano Allegri’s constraining system. He’s still a lethal finisher and a big-game player. Mitrović is the top scorer in Serbia’s history with 58 goals to his name, and he registered 40 goals and eight assists in 44 games at Al Hilal this season. With captain Dušan Tadić behind them in the no. 10 role, Mitrović and Vlahović should be unstoppable.

A player who often goes under the radar in the Serbian team is Andrija Živković, who regularly starts opposite of Kostić in the wingback position. The PAOK man creates several big chances in every match and could be a bright spark for Serbia at the Euros. Veljko Birmančević, meanwhile, is not expected to start but has all the makings of a super sub.

The 26-year-old had a phenomenal year at Czech outfit Sparta Prague, scoring 22 goals and making 12 assists as an attacking midfielder. He’s a relative newcomer to the national team but has looked composed in pre-tournament friendlies so far.

Piksi’s Tactical Conundrum

One of Serbia’s most notable flaws in the 2022 World Cup was its total imbalance between attack and defence. In the opening game against Brazil, Piksi opted to play just one striker up top, and Serbia came nowhere near scoring in that match. After the manager reverted to a two-striker formation in the remainder of the group stage, Serbia’s attackers became prolific, but the defence began to leak goals instead.

The coaching staff used the two-game friendly slate ahead of the Euros to solidify a formation for the tournament. In a 2-1 loss to Austria, Vlahović was the only striker in the starting XI. No attacking-minded players had any chances in the first half, the goal coming instead from a glancing header by Pavlović. After Mitrović was brought on in the second half, the team looked rejuvenated and were incredibly unlucky not to come away with a better result.

To Piksi’s credit, he reverted to the 3-4-1-2 in the clash against Sweden and it worked like a charm. Serbia played a very defensive game, using efficient counter-attacks to break down the Swedish resistance. Both wing-backs (Živković and Filip Mladenović) had assists, and Mitrović and Vlahović looked comfortable in the strike partnership. What’s more, the manager seemed to have struck gold with his player selection at the back. Beyond Rajković’s mesmerizing performance, Stojić was incredibly solid in what was just his second appearance for the national team. He joined Pavlović and Milenković in the three-man defence.

Predicting Serbia’s Run at the Euros

EURO 2024 gets underway this Friday (14th June), with Serbia taking on England in their opener on Sunday, 16th June. The Three Lions are heavily favored to win Group C, despite a poor stretch of form culminating in a 1-0 defeat to Iceland in a friendly at Wembley. If Piksi sticks to a two-striker formation and refuses to play passively, Serbia might stand a fighting chance in Gelsenkirchen. Nonetheless, a defeat is to be expected.

From there, the Serbian team travels to Munich for their remaining two group stage matches against Slovenia and Denmark. Slovenia can be a tough nut to crack, but Serbia should put a few goals past Jan Oblak and his sub-par defence.

As for the Danes, they reached the semifinals of the Euros last time around and blanked Serbia 3-0 in a friendly in 2022. A lot has changed since then, with both sides underperforming at the World Cup. Expect this clash to be a cagey affair, as both teams will be scared of letting passage to the knockout rounds slip through their fingers. Four points is generally enough to guarantee a spot in the last 16, so a draw could suit both Serbia and Denmark. This makes it a likely outcome.

It remains to be seen whether Serbia will finish second or third in their group, but it’ll make a minimal difference – both will probably send the team through to the next round, where they’ll face a group winner (A, E or F). Right now, the expected opponents are Germany, Belgium or Portugal. Regardless of who they draw, Serbia will be heavy outsiders in this match. A round of 16 exit is our final projection. That being said, an upset is not impossible. If the stars align, Serbia might finally live up to the dark horse billing from two years ago.

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