BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia should not be deterred by a possible hostile reception in Zagreb when they meet more fancied Croatia in their World Cup Group A qualifier on Friday and will enjoy the occasion, coach Sinisa Mihajlovic said on Saturday.
The match in Dinamo Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium will be played under tight security as the bitter Balkan rivals lock horns for the first time as independent nations after the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Mihajlovic was confident that his players would rise to the occasion after defeats in their last two games against Belgium and Macedonia piled the pressure on him.
“The Croatians are clearly the better and more experienced side, they’ve been together for a very long time and have some world-class players who are instrumental for their clubs,” the 44-year-old coach told a news conference on Saturday.
”We, on the other hand, are a young side awash with lads who may not know how good they really are and what they need is a breakthrough against a top side like Croatia to boost their confidence.
“We are going there to enjoy ourselves and my players need no motivational speech for this one, the opposition should bring the best out of them but we must stay calm and avoid burning out with anxiety before the regional derby kicks off,” he said.
Mihajlovic, a former defender-turned-midfielder who won the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade in 1991, was at the heart of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s success when they reached Euro 2000 at Croatia’s expense with a 2-2 draw at the same venue.
Yugoslavia, then comprising Serbia and Montenegro, scored both goals after Mihajlovic floated in a pair of superb free kicks with his left foot for Predrag Mijatovic and Dejan Stankovic to head home in their final qualifying group match.
The Croatians were flying high and favoured to go through after reaching the 1998 World Cup semi-finals and Mihajlovic said Serbia’s present team should take a leaf out of his book and get a win that would keep them in the hunt to reach next year’s tournament in Brazil.
”When I was a young player at my first club Vojvodina Novi Sad and then Red Star, I often watched the greatest players of that era on television thinking I couldn’t come near them.
”But when I eventually faced them on the pitch, I realised they only had two arms, two legs and one head, just like me, hence I was able to stand my ground and even outplay some of them because my confidence grew after every good tackle, pass and shot.
”Whether we win, lose or draw against Croatia, I expect my team to perform with the same zest and passion.
“If we lose we have to make sure we go down fighting and playing our best football, in which case I will have no complaints,” said Mihajlovic, who moved on to Italy’s Serie A and played for Roma, Lazio, Sampdoria and Inter Milan after the 1991 success with Red Star.
Croatia top the group alongside Belgium with 10 points from four games each, while Serbia are a distant third six points behind them.
Editing by Clare Fallon