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World Cup 2018 team preview: Can Serbia's talent jell in time for Russia?

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group E is Serbia.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group E: 12.5%
Odds to advance: 50%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.7%
Elo rank: 24
Yahoo Sports power rank: 19

Our writers say: With a recent history marred by political unrest, crowd trouble and – to put it bluntly – a lack of quality on the field, the stars have aligned for Serbia. It last featured at a major tournament when it crashed out of the 2010 World Cup group stage. To avoid such a fate in Russia, the Balkan nation will call upon the experience of Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic, while hoping that gems like Luka Milivojevic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic replicate their impressive form from 2017-18. Ryan Bailey

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Tadic will be key figures for Serbia’s attack at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 12th (9 as Yugoslavia, 1 as Serbia and Montenegro)
Best World Cup finish: Fourth place (1930 and 1962 as Yugoslavia)
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group D ahead of Ireland, Wales and Austria
Schedule: Costa Rica (Sunday, June 17, 8 a.m., Fox), Switzerland (Friday, June 22, 2 p.m., Fox), Brazil (Wednesday, June 27, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group E preview]

Squad

Manager: Mladen Krstajic
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov (D)
Top players: Nemanja Matic (M), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (M), Dusan Tadic (M), Branislav Ivanovic (D), Kolarov
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: Line their starting 11 up against any World Cup team outside the top six or seven, and on paper they wouldn’t be inferior. The midfield oozes talent. Matic and Milinkovic-Savic could get into almost any club side in the world. Mitrovic has been on fire for both club and country. Tadic is the playmaker that complements them. An experienced back four has been infused with youth. What’s not to like?

Why they’ll lose games: Here’s what’s not to like: The player who should be the centerpiece, Milinkovic-Savic, has never played with his two likely midfield partners before. The 6-foot-3 Lazio whiz, who’s drawn Paul Pogba comparisons, didn’t even make his first senior national team appearance until this past November. Previous manager Slavoljub Muslin’s refusal to call him up was reportedly a reason for his sacking three weeks after securing qualification. His replacement, Krstajic, had precisely zero managerial experience, and hasn’t yet settled on a specific midfield structure. So, uh, yeah, let’s just say Serbia isn’t quite a fully formed unit.

How they’ll play: Um … differently than they did in qualifying! Krstajic has changed the system since beginning on the job in November. So it’s tough to get a feel for what exactly Serbia will look like in Russia.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Vladimir Stojkovic; Branislav Ivanovic, Nikola Milenkovic, Dusko Tosic, Aleksandar Kolarov; Nemanja Matic, Luka Milivojevic; Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Filip Kostic; Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Ivanovic could start on the right or in the center of defense. If the latter, Antonio Rukavina would be the right back. Matija Nastasic’s injury, which kept him out of the 23, has seemingly opened up a starting spot for the 20-year-old Milenkovic, though neither he nor Tosic is a lock.

In midfield, Adem Ljajic is is the fourth option. Krstajic must decide he he wants to ride a single pivot or a double pivot. Milivojevic, in our projection, is the second holding midfielder next to Matic, but could be sacrificed for Ljajic. Or, alternatively, there’s even a chance Ljajic plays ahead of Milinkovic-Savic.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: As discussed above, their manager has literally never overseen a competitive international or professional game.

Why to root for them: Because nobody is really talking about them as a sleeper. So you don’t have to jump on a bandwagon; you can construct it and lead it. Then when they impress throughout the group stage and give Germany a tough game in the Round of 16, you’ll look really smart.

Why to root against them: There’s a chance the post-qualifying upheaval sends the World Cup campaign up in flames, and Serbia’s soccer is both boring and ineffective.

If you’re going to watch one game … The Swiss showdown on the second matchday could be the group decider.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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