Five reasons England should be scared of Serbia in Euro 2024 opener

Will Ford
Southgate Guehi Mitrovic
England should be more than a bit wary of Serbia.

A game against the team 33rd in the FIFA rankings should make for a comfortable Euro 2024 opener for England, one of the tournament favourites.

But as the game with Serbia draws closer we’re becoming more and more convinced that Dragan Stojkovic’s side represent quite the banana skin. England may actually have to play pretty well to win in Gelsenkirchen.

We’ve come up with five reasons Gareth Southgate and his players should be more than a bit wary of their Group C opponents.


Serbia strength vs England weakness
As clear as England’s weakness being their defence is Serbia’s strength being their strikers.

Aleksandar Mitrovic remains the go-to guy having scored 58 goals in 91 appearances for his country, including five in qualifying and one in their latest friendly. And more often than not he’s joined by Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic, who was heavily linked with Arsenal before his £80m move to the Old Lady in January 2022.

They would both walk into the majority of teams in the tournament, with one of the key talents they share being their aerial ability.

Marc Guehi is expected to partner John Stones at the heart of the Three Lions defence, and it’s this game more than any other that England could feel the effects of no Harry Maguire. Mitrovic scored a brace the last time he came up against Guehi, including one powerful header, and neither the Crystal Palace man nor Stones are particularly dominant when the ball is being swung into the box – not like Maguire anyway – and that will be Serbia’s game plan.

In qualifying Serbia ranked third for goals scored from headers (5), first for headed attempts (44) and second for crosses completed (67). It’s unlikely to be a barrage as England should have the majority of possession, but Declan Rice in particular – as a big’un in midfield – should be on alert to drop and help out the centre-backs when the ball goes out to the Serbian wings.


Trent Alexander-Arnold
Because Alexander-Arnold won’t do sh*t. That’s the worry the majority appear to have put to the back of their minds on the back of the news that he’s expected to start alongside Rice, having been beguiled by a couple of raking 50-yard passes against Bosnia that he actually made from right-back anyway.

There’s no perfect solution in midfield – whoever plays there will have their limitations – and we understand why in group games when England are huge favourites that Southgate is opting for the guy who can unlock defences from deep. But in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – who’s been eternally linked with the Premier League but swapped Lazio for Al Hilal in the summer – Serbia have a canny operator whose greatest asset is scoring goals from a more advanced midfield role.

We can see him running off Alexander-Arnold’s shoulder now.

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Fearing the unknown
Remarkably, England haven’t played Serbia in the 18 years since their split from Montenegro, whom England have faced on six occasions. They’re the only two sides in the opening round of matches never to have met each other, providing intrigue, but also uncertainty for both Southgate and Stojkovic.

The players are unlikely to have crossed paths all that frequently at club level either. Fulham’s Sasa Lukic and Chelsea goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic (who’s unlikely to play anyway) are the only two Premier League representatives, while Dusan Tadic and Mitrovic will be familiar to some. But the majority of individual battles will be happening for the first time.


Big tournament axe to grind
This is the first time Serbia have qualified for the European Championships, but they’ve played in three of the four World Cups since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 2006. They’ve failed to make it out of the group stage on all three occasions and Euro 2024 offers them a very good chance of righting that wrong with the four best third-place finishers in each group making it through to the knockout stage along with the top twos. Here’s how it all works, by the way.

Serbia should beat Slovenia, meaning a point against either England and Denmark will be enough to see them through and create history as the first group of Serbians to qualify from their group at a major competition.

They managed just one point in Qatar but threw away a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3 with Cameroon and lost 3-2 to Switzerland having led 2-1. Stojkovic remains along with most of the players who suffered that disappointment, and that combined with the knowledge that a draw will be plenty against England will likely lead to a more defensive, pragmatic approach that typically sees Southgate’s pass the ball endlessly from side to side and struggle to break down a very low block. Something to look forward to.


Iceland omen
Losing to Iceland brought back harrowing memories of Euro 2016 and the home fans thunder-clapping didn’t help, and it was an ominous result in that it was the first time England have lost their final match before a major tournament since 1968. Many of the same players – Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and the lads – who won the World Cup two years previously, lost 1-0 to Germany before losing the semi-final of what was then just a four-team Euros to – you guessed it – Yugoslavia.