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Preview: Korea vs Serbia

Korea’s preparations for Russia 2018 didn't start as well as hoped, with heavy defeats to Russia and Morocco in Korea’s first two friendly matches. But Korea played well in their win over Colombia in Suwon on Friday. If they can show a repeat of that performance against Serbia in Ulsan this coming Tuesday, then manager Shin Tae-yong could earn some breathing space from the pressure that had been building on him recently.

The Korean side is surprisingly similar to previous national team set-ups, with a lack of new faces. Given Korea’s general lacklustre performances over the past year, fans might be a bit disappointed that Shin Tae-yong hasn't brought in anyone new. The biggest surprise is Lee Jeong-hyup’s reappearance in the national side. He was the scapegoat for much of Stielike’s failings with the national team, and didn’t do much when given the chance at Ulsan in 2016. This year, he managed a paltry nine league goals in Korea’s second tier, and strikers like Yang Dong-hyun and Joo Min-kyu must be wondering what they have to do to earn a call up for the national team.

In defence, the absence of Jeonbuk’s Kim Min-jae raises worries that Korea could see a repeat of the batterings they took in their last two friendly games, but with Jang Hyun-soo getting plenty of game time since his move to FC Tokyo, hopefully his performances for Korea will be better than they were earlier this year.

The most important additions to Korea's line-up could be Shin Tae-yong's new assistants, Toni Grande and Javier Minano, who helped Vincente Del Bosque's Spain win the World Cup and European Championships. Whether it was their presence, or Shin Tae-yong learning from his failed 3-4-3 experiment against Russia and Morocco, Korea lined up against Colombia in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike previous games, Korea moved forward quickly, opting to try and catch the Colombian players out of position, rather than slow down the build up to let other Korean players get forward as they often did in the recent past. This, combined with some intelligent movement gave Korea a deserved 2-1 win over Colombia. Defensively, the four at the back looked much more solid too, with most of Colombia's chances coming from free kicks rather than open play. Shin explained his choice of formation by saying that it gets the most out of star forward Son Heung-min, who hit the back of the net twice against Colombia. The question now is can Korea replicate that performance against Serbia, or will Shin Tae-yong revert back to the dreaded 'three-back' system that he tried in previous friendlies.

To find out a bit more about the Serbia team, I talked to Tom Wood, who writes on European and Eastern European football for futbolgrad.com.

Steve Price: How have Serbia performed during qualifying? Any problems or was it relatively straight-forward?

Tom Wood: Serbia’s campaign for next year’s World Cup has largely been excellent, despite their qualification only being secured on the last day. Topping one of the tournament’s most competitive qualifying group with some impressive wins on the way should be applauded. Their loss away to Austria in Serbia’s penultimate qualifying game was a slight blip, and the goalless first half against Georgia worried a fair few in Belgrade. However, Aleksandar Prijovic’s strike turned concern into jubilation and Serbia’s qualification was confirmed.

Since Serbia have qualified, two rather interesting developments have emerged. Firstly, Head Coach Slavoljub Muslin has parted company with the national team. Despite only losing one game in charge of Serbia, his “style” of football has been frowned upon by those in the FSS hierarchy, and many have disagreed with his team selections, the notable exclusions of talented youngsters Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Andrija Zivkovic being a particular bone of contention. Until a replacement is found for Muslin, his assistant Mladen Krstajic takes charge of the team.
Secondly, it’s been heavily rumoured that young Benfica keeper Mile Svilar will officially decide to play for Serbia, ignoring the calls of Belgium. This is excellent news for Serbia moving forward, the 18-year-old looking incredibly promising, already possessing a great measure of footballing prowess at such a young age.

SP: Which Serbia players should we look out for? Are there any great up-and-coming players in the side that'll be household names in a few years' time? 

TW: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is certainly a name to keep your eyes on. An incredibly talented midfielder, the Lazio player, despite signing a new contract very recently, has gathered interest from across Europe, Manchester United in particular being touted as potential buyers should Milinkovic-Savic leave the Italian capital.

Benfica winger Andrija Zivkovic is also a promising talent. His ability on the ball has seen himself likened to Lionel Messi. Certainly, it will be interesting to see his impact when he truly breaks through to the senior side, and if his performances in the U21’s are anything to go by (2 assists in Serbia’s recent 3-2 win against Russia), the future is bright for the ex-Partizan man.

Despite stalling somewhat since his move to Liverpool from Crvena Zvezda, another potential talent is Marko Grujic, who undeniably has a wealth of ability and could still be a potential star for Serbia going forward. Two names to look out for significantly further down the line are the two brothers who have recently purchased by Manchester City from Crvena Zvezda, Luka and Ivan Illic, aged 18 and 16. Both play at a level of football that is very mature for their age, and in midfield could be stars for their country in the next decade.

SP: How will Serbia likely to approach this game? What formation might they use? How seriously are they taking this friendly?

TW: Serbia’s approach in this match against Korea will almost surely be an experimental one. It is the first game in charge for interim coach Krstajic, and probably one of his last, as a replacement in theory should be found soon. It’s the perfect opportunity to throw a few different names under the national team limelight, the likes of Dusan Tadic and Nermanja Matic having already proven their worth to the side.

SP: What are Serbian fans' expectations for the World Cup? Can they win the whole thing?

TW: The feeling in Serbia at the moment is one of hesitance and apprehension. In any normal situation, one would be filled with jubilation after qualifying top of an extremely competitive group and making the World Cup Finals for the first time since 2010. However,the sacking of Muslin who turned the fortunes of the national team around significantly, despite the criticisms of “bad football”, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who now doubt whether the team can be a credible threat in the world cup finals. However, Serbs can be easily fired up, and if the team manage to get past the group stage in a promising fashion, many will believe that Serbia can go all the way. Certainly, Serbia have a wealth of talent, however whether this talent can be utilised correctly by Muslin’s successor remains to be seen.

Korea take on Serbia on Tuesday November 14 in Ulsan. K-League United will be holding a watch party for the match at the Upper Deck in Kyungridan, Seoul, so please come along if you’re free!

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