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THIS IS THE FIRST WORLD CUP APPEARANCE BY SERBIA AS AN INDEPENDENT NATION. A TEAM MADE UP OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO QUALIFIED IN 2006, AND AS PART OF YUGOSLAVIA the region was represented in nine finals. The newly minted White Eagles made it on their first try.
In winning a strong qualifying group that included France, Austria and Romania, Serbia proved itself to be a stout defensive team. Manager Radomir Antic is known as a solid tactician, a reputation he burnished at Atlético Madrid, which he led to a La Liga/Copa del Rey double in 1995-96.
Antic has aligned the White Eagles in a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3. If he goes with a lone striker, then Nikola Zigic, who plays for Valencia, is the logical choice. Zigic, one of the tallest players in the world at more than 6' 7", is the ideal target forward. If the team is aligned in a 4-3-3, midfielders Milan Jovanovic and Nenad Milijas figure more in the attack. Keep an eye on veteran Marko Pantelic, who found his form after signing with Ajax in the Netherlands and could figure as a late substitute in games in which Serbia is trailing.
Captain Dejan Stankovic is a do-it-all midfielder for Inter Milan. He can play wide or centrally and is still going strong at 31. Milos Krasic, 25, shone during Champions League play with CSKA Moscow and seems destined to move to a bigger club in Spain or Italy. Zdravko Kuzmanovic, 22, is another young talent, as is 23-year-old Gojko Kacar. Both ply their trade in Germany, with Stuttgart and Hertha Berlin, respectively.
Manchester United center back Nemanja Vidic may be the best defender in the world, and 21-year-old Neven Subotic of Borussia Dortmund is not far behind. Combined with Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic, they give Serbia a strong defensive foundation. The goalkeeper, however, is the underwhelming Vladimir Stojkovic. He has had trouble finding a first-team club spot over the last few years and was loaned by Sporting Lisbon to Wigan Athletic as a temporary replacement for Ghana's Richard Kingson when Kingson was competing in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Don't be surprised if the White Eagles advance to the second round and even beyond. They could easily defeat Australia and Ghana and become one of the surprise teams of the tournament.