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'Plavi' playing with conviction

Published: Friday 2 September 2005, 8.02CET
Serbia and Montenegro coach Ilija Petkovic tells how a focus on unity and discipline has put a proud footballing nation back on its feet and in with a chance of World Cup qualification.
by Aleksandar Boskovic
from Palic
Published: Friday 2 September 2005, 8.02CET

'Plavi' playing with conviction

Serbia and Montenegro coach Ilija Petkovic tells how a focus on unity and discipline has put a proud footballing nation back on its feet and in with a chance of World Cup qualification.

Serbia and Montenegro are the only team in Europe yet to concede a goal during this FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. If they preserve that record this week against Lithuania and Group 7 leaders Spain, the "Plavi" (the Blues) as they are known in their home country, will be within touching distance of a place in Germany next summer.

Upturn in fortunes
That Serbia and Montenegro are in with a realistic chance is down to coach Ilija Petkovic, who has presided over an astonishing upturn in fortunes since taking charge in July 2003. The Plavi had just lost to Azerbaijan and their hopes of reaching UEFA EURO 2004™ were over. But as Petkovic tells, times have changed considerably. What is the mood like going into these two important qualifiers?

Ilija Petkovic: High motivation is a major characteristic of this team. The players are living to get to Germany. The nation has also played a significant role in helping us, pressuring us to break out of the bad spell that saw us fail to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and EURO 2004™. With Spain coming up, how hard has it been to focus on Lithuania?

Petkovic: Lithuania is all I’m thinking about because it's a key match for us. If we don't win, we won't go to Madrid with two points more than Spain and we will have little motivation. A victory against Lithuania would also mean a draw in Spain would be like a victory for us, and give us at least a second place in the group. Why have you recalled Mateja Kezman after leaving him out against Belgium?

Petkovic: Kezman has been recalled after scoring [at the recent Valeriy Lobanovskiy tournament] in Ukraine. Against Belgium I didn't feel he was in shape. He had spent the previous six months on the bench at Chelsea FC. In Ukraine, he did very well in attack alongside Nikola Zigic and deserved another chance. Spain are such a threatening team in attack, how did you hold them to a goalless draw in Belgrade? Will you adopt a similar plan in Madrid?

Petkovic: Spain missed three fantastic chances in Belgrade and they were superior for most of the 90 minutes. Since my return I have not changed my line-up or my tactical strategy. After six years of 3-5-2, I transformed the line-up to 4-4-2. I don't intend to change my approach now. Which Spanish player do you fear most?

Petkovic: Fernando Torres. He is a young and modern player and excellent in the air. He is very fast and always wants to be involved. What is the secret behind your defence?

Petkovic: I have built one team and one defence from the moment I became coach. The defenders have not changed, except for [Mladen] Krstajic in Brussels because of injury. [Dragoslav] Jevric in goal, [Goran] Gavrancic, [Nemanja] Vidic, Krstajic and [Ivica] Dragutinovic form the wall. They work together brilliantly, with Krstajic in charge. Defensively we are settled which is very important. If you keep a clean sheet you can’t lose, but we must improve up front. Your nation has sometimes appeared to play more as a group of individuals than a team. How have you installed such a unity of purpose?

Petkovic: After the 2003 disaster we lost stars like [Dragan] Stojkovic, [Pedrag] Mijatovic and [Dejan] Savicevic. We tried to replace them but it didn't work, it was impossible to replace them. The copies were so much worse than the originals. I decided to change the face of the team. I told my players: "Stop being artists, you must become workers." How much does your success mean to the nation?

Petkovic: Football is our No1 sport, but the basketball, handball, volleyball and water polo teams are all higher in their international rankings, winning titles on a regular basis. The fans want the football team to reach that level. The political turmoil in the 1990s and the disintegration of Yugoslavia have left deep scars on the nation. Success would help heal the wounds and motivate the nation's recovery. Therefore our responsibility is enormous. How do you explain Serbia and Montenegro’s recent success? The improvement since the defeat by Azerbaijan has been dramatic.

Petkovic: The defeat in Azerbaijan was the lowest point in our football history. The national team's demise reflected the overall situation in our club football and entire country. Clubs were selling players abroad without implementing structures for the future. Then FK Partizan played in the UEFA Champions League and tried to hold on to as many players as possible. Some smaller clubs, like FK Zeta, have followed their example. Our football is slowly coming out of a dark period. With the great potential and talent we have there is a chance for Serbia and Monetengro to be a strong European team.

Last updated: 02/09/05 11.02CET

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