Still contending for promotion to the top tier of the UEFA Nations League, Serbia welcome League B Group 4 rivals Sweden to Belgrade on Saturday.
With two rounds remaining, the World Cup finalists are three points adrift of leaders Norway, while their visitors are occupied with avoiding demotion to League C.
Though they failed to hold onto a two-goal lead and win their third successive Nations League fixture last time out, Serbia remain well placed to overhaul fellow contenders for promotion, Norway, coming into their final two games.
The Eagles had to settle for a 2-2 draw in Ljubljana, as they let maximum points slip against Slovenia in June, but had already beaten their hosts 4-1 in the reverse fixture before upsetting Sweden in Stockholm.
Only a 1-0 loss to the Norwegians separates them from top spot, but Dragan Stojkovic’s side have already accumulated one more point than in their previous Nations League campaign, in which they avoided relegation just by virtue of goal difference.
Indeed, their progress in Europe’s newest international competition reflects a wider trend, as Serbia are set to feature at another global finals at the end of the year.
After finishing clear of group favourites Portugal to clinch automatic qualification with a last-day victory – secured in the most dramatic fashion, through Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 90th-minute winner – the Serbs entered the current Nations League campaign brimful of confidence.
Now with one eye on the looming World Cup, Stojkovic’s squad will be keen to impress in their final home fixture and secure a seat on the plane to Qatar.
Despite a challenging draw, and the prospect of a hangover from failure in World Cup qualification, Sweden were most pundits’ favourites to prevail in Group 4 before a ball was kicked.
However, they followed an opening-day win over outsiders Slovenia with three straight losses – one at home to Saturday’s opponents; the other pair versus their close Nordic rivals.
Leaving a bitter taste among the Swedish fans, twice in the space of seven days in June, their national team suffered defeat at the hands of Norway: 2-1 at home and 3-2 away.
Janne Andersson’s side – who were eliminated in the playoff finals for Qatar 2022 by Poland – therefore sit too far adrift to contest top spot, and instead must at least match Slovenia’s points tally in the final two fixtures to escape a demoralising demotion to Europe’s third tier.
Having been relegated from League A less than two years ago, such a fate would further fuel the anguish of nation that has grown accustomed to mixing it with the top teams – including reaching the quarter-finals of Russia 2018. There is some pressure, therefore, to pick up a positive result before hosting the Slovenes on Tuesday.
Serbia competition form:
Serbia form (all competitions):
Sweden competition form:
Sweden form (all competitions):
We say: Serbia 1-0 Sweden
Sweden are going through a transitional phase, and are switching back to tried-and-trusted methods in search of their identity – several key players remain short of playing time at club level too. Therefore, Serbia can capitalise by dictating possession and scoring at least once through several attacking options.