Football - Serbia's Mihajlovic defuses tension ahead of Croatia clash

The bitter memories of Balkan conflicts that tore the former Yugoslavia apart should take a back seat to football when Serbia visit Croatia in next month's World Cup qualifier in Zagreb, Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic said on Monday.

Reuters

The 44-year-old former international, who won the European Cup with Red Star Belgrade in 1991 shortly before Yugoslavia's violent break-up, also warned those Serbian players about the pressures of facing Croatia.

"The match with Croatia will be a game of football and not war and it won't be a problem," Mihajlovic told Belgrade's Beta news agency.

"I expect my players to deal with the occasion the right way because those football players who can't take the pressure of high-profile games should get into another line of work, like office jobs.

"My players have to believe in themselves and be confident about how good they are. I wish we could play matches against the likes of Croatia in front of a full house every week because that's the quickest and best way for players to mature," he said.

The teams have never met as independent nations, although the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then consisting of Serbia and Montenegro, reached Euro 2000 at the expense of Croatia after snatching a 2-2 draw in their final qualifying group match in Zagreb.

The March 22 Group A game will be played under tight security after the Croatian authorities vowed to deploy a record number of police and both federations agreed to allocate no tickets for their away fans in either fixture, with the reverse encounter scheduled for Sept. 6 in Belgrade.

Croatia are joint top of the group alongside Belgium with 10 points from four games while Serbia are a distant third, six points behind.

Mihajlovic came under pressure from Serbian media for his team selection and performances in a 3-0 home drubbing by Belgium and a 1-0 defeat in Macedonia but suggested he had few dilemmas about his team selection against the Croatians.

"I have a pretty clear idea who could start the match although there is a month to go and a lot might change, depending on injuries and consistency in players' form," he said.

"But there is no doubt in my mind that those who are selected will play their hearts out."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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