Revived Serbia aiming high under Stojkovic

Soccer Football - UEFA Nations League - Group H - Serbia v Sweden - Stadion Rajko Mitic, Belgrade, Serbia - September 24, 2022 Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic before the match REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Nov 5 (Reuters) - Serbia have high hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup having banished the heartbreak of failing to qualify for Euro 2020 when Aleksandar Mitrovic missed in a shootout.

Fast forward 12 months and Dragan Stojkovic's side secured an automatic berth at the World Cup with a 2-1 comeback win over Portugal after Mitrovic scored in the 90th minute.

Their qualifying success sent an early warning to their Group G opponents at the finals -- expect the unexpected.

Serbia, who avoided the nervy qualifying playoffs, went on to top their Nations League group ahead of Norway, Slovenia and Sweden and gained promotion to the competition's top tier.

Stojkovic, appointed in March 2021, is secure in his position as Serbia coach with the highest win rate (65%) since the end of the Serbia & Montenegro era in 2006. His side have won 13, drawn four and lost three of his games in charge.

The 57-year-old, known for his strong focus on attack, got the best out of many of the players who had struggled.

Serbia's main problem at the World Cup in recent years has been a lack of goals and they have failed to get past the group stage since 1998.

Last time out in Russia they scored twice, like in 2006 and 2010, having failed to qualify for the tournament in 2014.

But with in-form Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic often partnered by Dusan Vlahovic of Juventus, Serbia have the goalscoring prowess to trouble their opponents.

DEADLY DUO

In the Nations League group stage, Serbian players featured prominently in the attacking statistics.

Mitrovic scored as many goals as Erling Haaland (six), but the Norway striker's tally included two penalties unlike Mitrovic. The Serbian also had most goal attempts on target (13) alongside France's Kylian Mbappe.

Captain Dusan Tadic was top for assists (four) together with Romania's Nicusor Bancu.

Vlahovic scored once in the two games he played in the competition but the 22-year-old, who made his Serbia debut in October 2020, added four more as Serbia secured World Cup qualification by topping their group.

At international level, Vlahovic is still a star in the making but at his clubs he has been amongst the Serie A top scorers for the past three campaigns, ending both 2020-21 and 2021-22 with more than 20 goals.

He is currently ranked joint third in Serie A this season with six goals from 10 games.

With a deadly duo up front, confidence at the back ahead of Torino goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic and trust between players and coach, Serbia's hopes that this year's World Cup could mark a turning point are justified.

However, they are in a tough Group G where they will face five-times champions Brazil, always dangerous Switzerland and Africa Cup of Nations bronze medallists Cameroon.

Reporting by Anita Kobylinska in Gdansk; Editing by Ken Ferris

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