By Aleksandar Boskovic
A 2-0 win in their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying game against Belgium in Brussels this week confirmed that Serbia and Montenegro are back.
Goals from FC Shakhtar Donetsk midfield player Zvonimir Vukic and Chelsea FC striker Mateja Kezman effectively snuffed out Belgium's hopes of qualifying for the finals. Belgium coach Aimé Anthuenis said admiringly: "Just look at our opponents - they had a player like Mateja Kezman on the bench." Anthuenis bemoaned the lack of options he had when selecting a squad for the game, and the shortage of quality players in Belgian football. It is a situation that Serbia and Montenegro know all about.
After a 2-1 UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying defeat against Azerbaijan prompted his resignation, former Serbo-Montenegrin coach Dejan Savicevic fumed: "Players from our national championship do not have strength and stamina to run for 90 minutes, even against Azerbaijan, and most of our [foreign-based] players are of an age when it is not easy to play quality football matches."
When Savicevic quit, Ilija Petkovic - who had previously coached the team from August 2000 to February 2001 - was left to pick up the pieces. With former Yugoslavia stalwarts Predrag Mijatovic, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Zoran Mirkovic retiring at the same time as Savicevic, he was forced to change direction.
"During the 20th century we were artists," he said. "But we have lost some excellent individual players since then so we had to change our game. Now, we are good workers, like the other European teams.
We were the European Brazilians in the past but we have changed. We had to do that."
With players' confidence still low after they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Petkovic salvaged some pride for his team with two wins against Wales and a draw against Italy in their final EURO 2004™ qualifiers, but it is in the campaign for the 2006 World Cup that they have begun to shine.
The win against Belgium confirmed the promise suggested by two previous wins and a draw and put the 'Plavi' - or Blues - on top of their group. With a resilient 4-4-2 formation having replaced the cavalier 3-5-2 system of old, Petkovic's men showed themselves to be a powerful unit.
Vukic was the key figure on the night. A gifted playmaker, he controlled play in the middle of the pitch, battled for the ball, scored the first goal and set up the second. He will be sorely missed in his side's next game against Spain on 30 March, as he serves a one-match suspension for picking up a second yellow card.
That may mean more responsibility for Olympiacos CFP midfield player Predrag Djordjevic. Another impressive performer in Brussels, he missed the first three games of the qualifying campaign through injury, but played with a vitality that belied the fact that at 32 he was the oldest player in the team. SBV Vitesse goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevric also played an important role while Kezman's first goal for the national team since a friendly game against Lithuania in April 2002 gave further cause for confidence.
Already, Petkovic's team are being touted as potential world-beaters back at home, but the coach is keeping calm. "We have made one little step, but a good step," he said. "Germany is still a long way away. Our target is first place in Group 7. We want to finish the job this time."
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