There were tears in Milan Smiljanić's eyes as he reflected on the 3-1 defeat by Sweden that confirmed Serbia's exit from the Under-21 finals. "I can only say I am very upset," he told uefa.com.
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Serbia captain Milan Smiljanić did not have to utter a word when he arrived in the mixed zone to address the press after his side's elimination by Sweden – the tears in his eyes said everything.
Slobodan Krčmarević's team fell short of their goal and are heading back to Belgrade early, after their 3-1 defeat by the hosts in Malmo consigned them to third place in Group A. After three successive semi-final appearances, this loss evidently hurt. "I can only say I am very upset," Smiljanić told uefa.com. "People in Serbia believed in us but we couldn't manage it."
Serbia went down to three goals inside the first half-hour from Sweden forwards Marcus Berg (2) and Ola Toivonen, and finished with nine men following red cards for Nenad Tomović and Nikola Petković. If dismayed by the dismissals, Smiljanić did not disguise the fact defensive errors had cost his side dear. "We made mistakes in defence and after that we ran and ran but to no effect," the 22-year-old RCD Espanyol midfielder said. "We had two players less and it was just Sweden pushing for more goals after that. Sweden played well, they made it very difficult, but we were poor. I am very sad; everyone in Serbia believed we could make it to the semi-finals."
'Have to go home'
The skipper's comments were echoed by forward Miralem Sulejmani who said: "We were positive before this game; we believed in our ability. We wanted it so much but we made a few mistakes and tomorrow we have to go home." Adding words of praise for the opposition, the AFC Ajax player said: "Sweden are very compact, they have two good strikers, and I know them very well because I play in the same league in the Netherlands. I'd like to wish them good luck in the semi-final."
For all the quality of Berg and Toivonen, Serbia's defending did not reach the usual high standards of a unit that had kept six successive clean sheets in this UEFA European Under-21 Championship, qualifiers included. For the first goal, Berg had the freedom of the Serbia penalty box to stroke Emir Bajrami's cross beneath Željko Brkić. The Scandinavians' third, a crushing blow to Serbian spirits just 120 seconds after Gojko Kačar had reduced the arrears to 2-1, came when Jagoš Vuković and Nemanja Pejčinović combined to gift a clear shooting chance to Toivonen. "We can't criticise our defenders because they played really well in the first two games and we have to stick together as a group," added Sulejmani.
For the 20-year-old Sulejmani there may be another opportunity in this competition but save for him and Jagoš Vuković, the rest of Krčmarević's starting XI against Sweden will have moved on by the time the next U21 championship gets under way. "For a couple of guys it is the last time with the Under-21s and now we have a new generation coming," said Sulejmani. Smiljanić will have no further occasion to try and improve on his runners-up medal in 2007 – that was as good as it will get and this realisation hurt. "This was my last game with this generation and now I need to continue my career," he reflected. "But this has been very, very hard for us."