They may have experienced a disappointing World Cup campaign last summer, but Serbia are quietly emerging as one of the most interesting international teams on the planet.
When we think of Serbia, we might immediately jump to the players who have graced the Premier League: captain Aleksandar Kolarov; Ajax’s reinvigorated Dusan Tadic; Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic; or Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic.
But there are several Serbians in the current set-up who have been impressing for clubs across Europe and on the international stage in recent months.
As Serbia prepare to face Germany and Portugal in the comings days, here are five players to keep an eye out for.
Club: Eintracht Frankfurt (on loan from Benfica)
Serbia appearances: 3
Only Robert Lewandowski (18) has scored more goals than Luka Jovic (15, level with Marco Reus) in the Bundesliga so far this season. The Eintracht Frankfurt striker, who is on loan in Germany from Benfica, is being linked with a summer move to Premier League and it’s not hard to see why.
The 21-year-old has also provided five assists in the Bundesliga this term and scored a brilliant winner against Inter Milan in the Europa League last week. His all-round ability up front could see him lead the line ahead of Mitrovic in Serbia’s upcoming matches. And if he keeps developing in the way he currently is, we might see him turning out for a top six English club next season.
Club: Maccabi Tel Aviv
Serbia appearances: 11
Football Manager players will be familiar with Predrag Rajkovic. The goalkeeper was an affordable, potentially top-class target on FM18, playing a vital role in this writer’s back-to-back Premier League titles with Huddersfield Town. Yes, things turned sour in West Yorkshire eventually, but no one can take those medals away from me. No one.
In reality, Rajkovic currently plays in the Israeli top-flight but is likely to have European suitors. At 23 he has already made 11 senior appearances for his country. Those numbers should rise as a result of his club form; he has kept 14 clean sheets in 26 league games this term, conceding just 12 goals.
Serbia appearances: 14
Andrija Zivkovic is just 22 but has already made 176 senior club appearances in his short career. The clear potential he showcased for Partizan in his home country tempted Benfica into buying the winger in the summer of 2016.
One of the stars of Serbia’s Under-20 World Cup success in 2015, Zivkovic has made the step up to the senior international stage but has failed to score in 14 games. His goal record at club level could also be improved, but there is a feeling Zivkovic is a run of form away from reaching the potential he showed in his youth, and Serbia could reap the rewards.
Serbia appearances: 10
In January, Fiorentina chief executive Pantaleo Corvino claimed the club had turned down an offer from Manchester United for star centre-back Nikola Milenkovic. At just 21, Milenkovic has already developed into one of Serie A’s best centre-backs, leading to reported interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The former Partizan defender was arguably Serbia’s standout player at the World Cup and is likely to be a mainstay in his country’s back line for years to come. More impressive displays for club and country could lead to further bids from Manchester United.
Position: Central midfield
Serbia appearances: 10
Completing the spine of the team – playing in between Milenkovic at the back and Jovic up front – is Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, another player who has constantly been linked with the Premier League since emerging as a regular for Lazio.
The 24-year-old was included in the Serie A Team of the Year last season, scoring 12 goals in 35 league appearances. It took until 2017 for Serbia to promote him from the Under-21s to the senior team, for whom he has demonstrated his ability as a box-to-box midfielder comparable to Paul Pogba – no wonder Manchester United have been mooted as a potential future destination.
Where are they now? Serbia’s U20 World Cup winners from 2015
Some of the names above were instrumental for the Serbian Under-20 team that won the World Cup in 2015. Milinkovic-Savic played six of the seven games at the tournament, Rajkovic captained the side throughout and Zivkovic scored in the semi-finals against Mali.
Other players involved were Milos Veljkovic, who spent time in the Tottenham Hotspur academy and now plays for Werder Bremen; Marko Grujic, who is on loan at Hertha BSC from Liverpool; and Nemanja Maksimović, the Getafe midfielder who often partners Nemanja Matic in Serbia’s midfield.
Serbia are a long way off winning trophies at senior level, but the current crop of players – many of whom tasted glory at youth level four years ago – will be eager to show their quality at tournaments over the next few years.