Much of the lead up to this opening group qualifier has been based around who will not be on show for Serbia but there are still plenty of names familiar to Irish fans that the Boys in Green will have to be wary of.
Like Ireland, most of Serbia’s high profile players are based in England. Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic are two of the most prominent of that bunch and thankfully both are missing tonight due to suspension.
Other recognisable names, however, like Branislav Ivanović, Dušan Tadić and Aleksander Mitrović are likely to line out.
While he is probably a player in decline, skipper Ivanović is always a tough, powerful defender who may be feeling the positive effects of a clean slate with a new manager at the moment after being one of the chief scapegoats during Chelsea’s troubles last season.
For all of the praise rightly surrounding his former teammate Sadio Mané at the moment, for large portions of last season Dušan Tadić was Southampton’s danger man. He scored eight goals in 33 Premier League appearances last year and combines the stereotypically polished technical ability of eastern European players with scary out-and-out pace.
Whichever side he lines up on, it is likely that Robbie Brady or Johnny Walters will have to curb their attacking instincts and focus on getting back and helping out their full-backs.
Aleksander Mitrović only arrived at Newcastle last year, yet he has made a strong impression in that time. In a team that was often criticised for not seeming to care, Mitrović instantly became a fan-favourite because of his dogged, hard-working style.
He was often the only one who seemingly chased down opponents and put himself about physically. He is especially dangerous in the air due to his aggression and 6′ 2″ frame. However, this aggression may be something Ireland can try and exploit to their advantage.
Against Belgium this summer, one of the main criticisms was that Ireland were too nice against a side who clearly had more quality in their team and punished us because of this unwillingness to play cynically when needed.
Roy Keane alluded to it afterwards in the run-up to the Italy match when saying (via Goal.com) that players “have got to be streetwise in this game”. Maybe it’s not the nicest thing to have in your mind going into a match but anyone who has seen Mitrović play knows he is hot-headed and if riled up throughout the match quite likely to lash out and get sent off.
It will be interesting to see if Ireland are willing to follow Keane’s advice and get their hands a bit dirtier than usual. It could be the difference between a loss or a draw, a draw or a win. It could even be the difference between being in Russia in two years’ time or being on the couch.
Vincent Whelan, Pundit Arena