This was supposed to be the biggest game of the decade for both nations, a game that would decide who rules the Balkans. Because of the recent history of these two countries, it was widely expected that this game would produce some political tension. Add the bad blood boiling between the two coaches and you have an epic game in the making, guaranteed to finish with one team securing a ticket to Brazil with a late goal. But those were the expectations, and now there is reality.
Serbia has had an awful World Cup Qualification campaign. Not even the biggest pessimists expected only seven points after seven games. It would seem that Sinisa Mihajlovic, playing legend and young coach with a great future, as some thought, has done almost everything wrong in these qualifications. He tried out quite a few players, but there still isn't a team. He decided not to invite Adem Ljajic, despite his great form, because he wouldn't sing the national anthem. He had an argument, now resolved, with Nemanja Matic, perhaps the best Serbian midfielder, causing Matic to miss the entire campaign until this point. There's an unhealthy atmosphere surrounding the team, with almost everyone in the country wishing for qualification to end and Mihajlovic to be sacked. The Serbian media are reporting that most aren't interested in the game and the Marakana might feature lots of empty seats.
These two teams met Zagreb in March and Croatia came away with a 2-0 victory. Then Serbia recorded another three defeats -- once to Macedonia and twice to group leaders Belgium. To try and repair the situation, Mihajlovic has 25 players at his disposal for this game, including the previously mentioned Matic. Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic is also back, but due to recent injury almost certainly won't be in the starting line up.
The road to Brazil is still open for Croatia, but they remain three points back of Belgium, and would, unsurprisingly, prefer that first slot rather than be forced into the playoff round. Mihajlovic's colleague on Croatia's bench, Igor Stimac, was heavily criticized by media and fans for bad form and results since he took over the team in July 2012. The Croatians shockingly lost to Scotland in Zagreb in March, which could prove fatal for their plans.
Ivan Strinic, the Croatian left back, injured himself during training in Zagreb a day before the trip to Belgrade, so Stimac called up Udinese's new player Igor Bubnjic. Other than that, there were no problems with selection. Stimac is confident that his team has what it takes to beat their big rivals. He said that Croatia will be patient and will wait for possible counter attacks to try and win three crucial points.
Match Date/Time: Friday, 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET
Venue: Stadion FK Crvena Zvezda (Marakana) Belgrade, Serbia
Online: ESPN3 (U.S)