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

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

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)
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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)

Squad
Manager: Mladen Krstajic
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov (D)
Top players: Nemanja Matic (M), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (M), Dusan Tadic (M), Branislav Ivanovic (D), Kolarov, Luka Milivojevic (M), Aleksandar Mitrovic (F)
Full 23-man (or preliminary) 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. The back four have over 250 caps among them, not to mention loads of top-flight European club experience. 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-4 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. 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; Antonio Rukavina, Branislav Ivanovic, Matija Nastasic, Aleksandar Kolarov; Nemanja Matic, Luka Milivojevic; Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Filip Kostic; Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Adem Llajic is a solid option off the bench, perhaps in place of Kostic, or even instead of the still-inexperienced Milinkovic-Savic. Nikola Maksimovic could start in the center of defense. The rest seems pretty set in stone.

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.