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Players will be pushed to match Mihajlovic's flawless performance
The disarming mood was a ruse.
Sinisa Mihajlovic was occasionally whimsical yesterday ahead of his first competitive match in charge of Serbia, but it could not detract from the task the manager faces as he attempts to impose order on a national team that is often volatile and underwhelming.
He is not a cautious figure and, when he took over last May, he pledged to quit if he failed to guide Serbia to the World Cup finals in Brazil. A more prudent manager might then have downgraded that ambition after being drawn with Belgium, Croatia, Scotland and Wales in qualifying.
Like his contemporaries, Mihajlovic describes the competitiveness of the group as a boon, reasoning that all the teams are capable of beating each other. That seems more realistic when each country can at least be considered to have worries to overcome.
Mihajlovic has an imbalanced squad. Any defence that can field Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea, Milan Bisevac of Lyon, Neven Subotic of Borussia Dortmund, and Aleksandar Kolarov of Manchester City is formidable. Even the rest of the team seems diminished in comparison. He is likely to anchor his midfield with Srdan Mijailovic, and lead his attack with Lazar Markovic, two 18-year-olds, but the squad did need purged.
Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic have both retired from international football, and Kolarov provided an insight into the tensions that had been prevalent in the dressing room previously when he said: "We have learned from [Vidic and Stankovic], but remembered some mistakes and done everything to eliminate them. We have a young team, hopefully they will listen and learn, then the future will be very good."
The manager could be careworn, since four games in charge have yet to deliver a victory. There are anxieties, too, about a lack of creativity and scoring prowess. There was an element of glibness in the way he talked about having played with three at the back and four at the back in the friendlies, but the squad might not be capable of the defensive versatility he relied upon during his career.
During yesterday afternoon's training session, a tactics diagram was dropped on the ground that appeared to detail plans to overload Scotland's left flank, where Paul Dixon is expected to make his first start at full-back. The carelessness might have been deliberate, to put pressure on the Huddersfield Town player, but it is hardly a piece of innovation to target a debutant. Mihajlovic has, though, been painstaking in his deliberations.
"I have been studying Scotland for many months, so I know their players," he said. "I know where the dangers will come from, but also the weaknesses."
When asked about the players he considered to carry the greatest threat, he replied: "Fletcher." He had previously been diplomatic when asked about the absence of the Sunderland striker, Steven Fletcher, and the quip drew a laugh from his audience.
It was not all good-natured, though, and he told the press officer to chide a journalist who asked Ivanovic a question about Chelsea.
Mihajlovic is attempting to instil a sense of discipline and order in his squad to replace the fecklessness it was capable of.
He is a charismatic figure, and tactically adventurous, but he is also having to manage change. A new generation of international players is being introduced, and there will be inconsistencies.
"We believe in ourselves, we have new players, a new team, and this is a new road for us," he said. "We would like to start in the best possible way, but it doesn't matter if we win or not, we will continue to give everything for our side.
"We play football for the supporters and I would love to see a full crowd. It's important that supporters come to a big match like this and I kindly request to the Scottish fans that you continue to support your team, even if you concede a goal."
The last remark was delivered with a smirk. Mihajlovic had offered a flawless performance, but his team may not be capable of a similar display. That is the defining challenge of his new role.
Taken from the Herald