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Strong defense is Serbia's trump card at World Cup

Strong defense is Serbia's trump card at World Cup

The partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic in the back will be a formidable obstacle for any team in South Africa when Serbia makes its World Cup debut as an independent nation.
Vidic and Ivanovic have honed their skill in the Premiere League and provide not only a sturdy line of defense but often an option in the attack, especially off dead-ball situations.
It remains to be seen, however, how fit Vidic will be, having not played for Manchester United in January and February because of a calf problem. Serbia needs Vidic to be healthy because he and Ivanovic, who plays for Chelsea, provide the experience and muscle to the team.
Vidic's injury is not the only problem facing Serbia. Another talented defender, left back Ivan Obradovic of Zaragoza, had knee surgery in January but still hopes to make the World Cup squad.
And Serbia has had perennial worries about its goalkeepers.
Its regular No. 1, Vladimir Stojkovic, keeps changing clubs in an attempt to stay match-fit, only to be benched over and over. Stojkovic goes from spectacular saves to beginner blunders _ often in the same game _ and remains a potential liability.
Stojkovic's backup, Vladimir Disljenkovic, has said he wants to give up his national team career and coach Radomir Antic has called up Zeljko Brkic, one of the few players based in the seemingly moribund Serbian league.
Brkic plays for Vojvodina and kept goal for Serbia's under-21 squad.
Serbia has not had a major playmaking midfielder for several years but may have finally found one in Milos Krasic.
The 25-year-old CSKA Moscow player was voted Serbia's player of the year in 2009, thanks largely to his play in qualifying, during which Serbia left powerhouse France well behind.
Krasic provides pace and flair to a solid midfield, with the experienced Dejan Stankovic of Inter Milan securing the area in front of his defense and launching Serbia's attacks.
Milan Jovanovic of Standard Liege, nominally listed as a midfielder, often plays as a winger and Serbia's second striker, and he topped all Serbia players with five goals in qualifying.
Promising midfielder Gojko Kacar has been struggling with injuries all season and has not played much for Hertha Berlin, the worst team in the Bundesliga.
Up front, big man Nikola Zigic often plays better for Serbia than he does for Valencia and Marko Pantelic, now with Ajax, has plenty of international experience with nearly a dozen clubs.
Serbia's biggest asset may be Antic, a 61-year-old coach who brought discipline into a squad never short on talent but always an underachiever.
Antic is the only man to have coached the big three Spanish clubs _ Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. And he is one of only two to have coached both Madrid and Barcelona.
After turning down the job several times before, Antic finally became Serbia coach in August 2008 and quickly shaped a well-functioning unit that impressed in qualifying, losing only in France and in Lithuania, a meaningless match with Serbia already qualified.
Under Antic, Serbia does not only defend _ one of its qualifying wins was a 5-0 rout of Romania.
"We are going to South Africa to show we are a team that can play well. The mood is good and we are inspired," Antic said. "We see that the others respect us as much as we respect ourselves."
By recalling Krasic to the national team, Antic has expanded its attacking options.
"While I am in charge, Serbia will always play attacking football," Antic said when he became coach.
Antic has managed to turn around the side without changing many players. After qualifying for the World Cup, Antic extended his contract until 2012, which would keep in charge through the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, should Serbia qualify.
Still playing as Serbia and Montenegro, the team was a huge disappointment at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, losing all three group games, including a 6-0 rout by Argentina.
In a group with three-time champion Germany, Ghana and Australia this time, Serbia will be hoping to advance to the knockout stage.