Matic and Serbia braced for a tough Aviva assignment

‘They play long balls and this works’ says midfielder of the Republic’s ‘style’

 Nemanja Matic: “They are second, two points behind us, but the most important thing is who will be in Russia.” Photograph:  John Peters/Getty Images

Nemanja Matic: “They are second, two points behind us, but the most important thing is who will be in Russia.” Photograph: John Peters/Getty Images

 

Finally, a visiting player has moved beyond describing the Irish football team as playing the “British style of football,” but Nemanja Matic’s updated alternative may not be what purists here had been hoping for.

“They have a special style of football,” he said of Martin O’Neill’s side, “they play long balls and this works.”

As one of the many foreign imports in a Premier League where the best sides’ dressing rooms have long been densely packed with imported coaches and players, the Manchester United star can be forgiven if he had been puzzled these past few years by the whole “British game” thing.

Still, if there had been an alarm in the Aviva Stadium’s west stand primed to go off when somebody damned with faint praise at a press conference, they’d have had to clear the building.

That the 29-year-old intended the remark kindly was clear. He was cheerful and, unlike quite a few of the players who visit Dublin with their national teams, quite happy to be helpful by answering the local media’s questions in English.

Occasionally, it seemed as though he was going out of his way to make the local press’s day as when, at one stage, he suggested the game against Ireland is one of the biggest in the history of Serbia.

One reporter, sounding slightly stunned, asked a follow-up question. It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was genuinely unsure whether Matic appreciated the scale of the claim or was simply greedy for more but shoulders sank around him as the player took the opportunity to provide clarity and context and so talk himself back from the brink of a thousand dramatic headlines.

First position

The former Chelsea star acknowledged that Ireland’s draw in Tbilisi had changed the balance of things slightly ahead of the game and that the approach of O’Neill’s side would be something the visitors might have to get to grip with a little better than they did in Belgrade. But, he said, he and his team-mates are taking nothing for granted.

“We will try to use our opportunities to win the game and take three points but we know it will be hard in this stadium in front of their supporters. The draw is not a bad result. The most important thing is to stay in the first position.”

He politely steered clear, meanwhile, as best he could, of the notion that Ireland’s tendency to surrender large amounts of possession will make life that bit easier for the visitors.

“To have possession of the ball is not that important if you have results,” he said, “and Ireland, up until now, have had a lot of results. Nobody asks questions when you take three points and Ireland have taken a lot of points.

“I saw they have 25 to 30 per cent possession of the ball but they got one point in Georgia so that’s most important,” he continued as somewhere, in the distance, the sound of a bell ringing could almost certainly be heard again.

“But we will see. It is hard to talk before the game. When the game starts, after 10 minutes, I can feel what is going to happen but before the game, it is not possible to know.”

A win for the Serbs, he acknowledged, would take them a long way towards guaranteeing top spot and that, he said, should give his side just the tiniest of head starts.

“They know that if they lose points we have a big advantage. At the moment we are happy that we are first and we will do our best to stay in first position.

“They are second, two points behind us, but the most important thing is who will be in Russia.”

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