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Having matched their best performance in a UEFA European Futsal Championship, Serbia are hoping to enter unchartered territory by ousting a Russia team in the quarter-finals their coach Aca Kovačević describes as "big favourites".
Twelve months ago Russia prevailed 3-0 when the sides locked horns in qualifying, Dmitri Prudnikov scoring two and Pula one in a game in which Marko Perić was dismissed. Serbia will, however, draw encouragement from the 2010 finals in Hungary, where Kovačević's men rallied from two down to defeat Tuesday's opponents 4-3 and claim top spot in their group.
Unlike that encounter, which both nations entered already assured of progress, there is no room for error in Split. "We have played Russia many times in the last five or six years," Kovačević, whose squad finished runners-up in Group B behind Portugal, told UEFA.com. "The last four games were very close, and we have always played very well against them."
While Serbia − who boast the four-goal top scorer in Croatia, Vidan Bojović − are preparing for their second foray into the knockout stage, Russia are seasoned campaigners at this level. Winners in 1999, they have been in the final on two other occasions, each time facing Spain.
"I'll repeat once again what
I have said many times: the base of players in Serbia is very small compared to other countries, especially Russia," added Kovačević, who will recall captain Bojan Pavićević after resting him for Sunday's 2-1 loss to Portugal. "To get to the quarter-finals is a very big success for us."
Russia finished ahead of Italy in Group C after drawing 2-2 with the Azzurri and although the loss of a two-goal lead in that game irked coach Sergei Skorovich, he was satisfied overall. "
Our goal was to qualify in first place, so I'm very pleased we finished in top spot," he said.
Skorovich raised a few eyebrows with his decision to start Gustavo in goal against Italy rather than the experienced Sergei Zuev. Having watched the Sibiryak keeper impress on his full UEFA European Futsal Championship debut, not to mention his 33rd birthday, Skorovich revealed the thinking behind a plan he could stick with.
"Gustavo uses his feet very well," he explained. "The idea was to utilise this strength of his in case Italy pressed us all over the court. Italy also use diagonal passes very well to try to reach their pivot. Gustavo understands the game really well and can predict a team's next move."
The winners of Monday's Split game between Croatia and Ukraine awaits Serbia or Russia in Zagreb on Thursday.
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