Stojkovic urges Serbia to keep on attacking England after waiting so long

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Serbia;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Serbia</a>’s squad limber up at the Arena AufSchalke for their Euro 2024 opener against England.</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images</span>

About six questions into Dragan Stojkovic’s pre-match press conference at the Arena AufSchalke, somebody offered Serbia’s head coach the chance for a quick slam dunk. The England team – or at least the country’s media – have underestimated Serbia, went the spiel. What do you say to that?

“I am here to talk about Serbia, not England,” Stojkovic growled. “They are a team that tries to be the champion of Europe, but to achieve that they have to do it on the pitch. We know what system, what players, there are no surprises there. What is important is that our players have all the information on the team. We have it, but we do not forget about ourselves – it’s us who have to do our parts of the job.”

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Stojkovic, a Red Star Belgrade icon, gave a calm, unflustered pitch before the Group C opener, perhaps reflecting the tightrope he has to walk when talking about his team to fans back home. This is Serbia’s first European Championship as an independent nation and an achievement worth marking (their last appearance was in 2000 as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – Serbia and Montenegro). On the other hand, having qualified for three of the past four World Cups and failed to escape the group stage, there is also pressure to make a debut in the last 16.

“Some of the players here were not even born the last time Serbia played in the Euros,” Stojkovic said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this, we deserve this, we have brought Serbia to the top of football. It is now up to us to take the further step to do everything we can to complete this first phase successfully. To our fans, to the people who love us, I can say we are going to fight to the very end and give more than the maximum. I believe that.”

Sitting alongside Stojkovic was his captain, Dusan Tadic, who will be central to Serbia’s hopes. The key question will be whether the former Southampton and Ajax player starts wide in a front three or in the hole behind a front two of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic. Stojkovic was not about to commit to one shape or another 24 hours out from the match, though the hint was that the Juventus forward Vlahovic will begin on the bench. But in terms of approach, and in a message he would want those at home to hear, Stojkovic said his team were ready to attack England.

“I think the game is going to be very open,” he said. “Serbia will not just wait and watch England play. On the contrary we will try to create as many problems for them. If we score first, the order is going to be score the second. It’s very simple. And whenever you score the second, you try to score another.”

Attack may be the best form of defence for a team that scored freely in qualifying but struggled to keep clean sheets. There are also the recent memories of 2022 to deal with, where Serbia conceded eight goals in their three games, including two against Brazil in another highly awaited opening fixture. “Playing against Brazil in Qatar we know how it ended,” Stojkovic said. “The team we are facing are favourites and let’s see how they are going to get through this game.”

Stojkovic’s recurring message regarding his opponents was that they had to prove their status as favourites. As mind games go it was pretty low key, and was bookended by frequent and clearly honest tributes to England’s ability. Jude Bellingham, he said, was “a future winner of the Ballon d’Or”, a player who “is very young but so powerful and we have to be very careful to close the space, not give him much time to control and penetrate in front of him”.

It wasn’t just the Real Madrid tyro who Stojkovic rated. “This England team is really talented: Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Bellingham; Harry Kane is already a really big player. If you see Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish out, you can imagine how strong they are. The team has changed from two years ago – this is a new generation of very, very talented players. It’s nice to watch how they play.”