By Manfred Christoph in Oberhausen
There will be far more at stake than simply three points when Serbia and Montenegro meet Croatia in the opening game of their UEFA European Under-21 Championship Group A campaign this evening. Although recording a win will be vital for both sides in a pool also containing much-fancied Italy, national pride will also be a major factor.
That fact is not lost on Serbia and Montenegro's Danko Lazovic. "Croatia is our rival team," explained the Feyenoord forward, who scored a hat-trick on his last club appearance ten days ago. "It is not only football – it is a big emotional match. If we win the first game, it is a big chance. If we lose, it is a big problem."
However, following his three-goal haul against FC Zwolle on 16 May, Lazovic tore a thigh muscle and was forced to miss training yesterday. Before naming his side for the tournament's opening game in the Stadion Niederrhein, coach Vladimir Petrovic will wait for the results of a late fitness test on the striker, who grimly admitted: "My aim for the tournament is just to play."
Croatia coach Martin Novoselac played down the political edge to the game, which his players are approaching in a positive frame of mind. "We are here to play football, not to make politics," he said. "The atmosphere in the team is very good, as usual. Serbia and Montenegro may have a very good side and they have made it clear that they want a medal. But we also have our goal, which is reaching the Olympic Games."
A third-placed finish would be enough to secure a route to Athens but Bayer 04 Leverkusen's Croatian midfield player Marko Babic was not looking that far ahead when he insisted: "We don't have any outstanding or key players, we just have a very good team.
For us it is just a big honour to come here and play for our country."
Petrovic echoed Babic's sentiments, but could not avoid stressing the importance of the game. "We are satisfied to be here," he added. "For 14 years we have not been involved in such a big tournament. The fans are behind us but they think we belong among the top two. Consequently, a lot depends on the outcome of the first match.
It will be very, very difficult."
©UEFA.com 1998-2011. All rights reserved.