The last time Wales visited Serbia was in a World Cup qualifier back in 2012. It’s a trip that the collective coaching staff, players and fans would like to forget, as Wales were thumped 6-1. The Welsh eventually finished second-bottom of the World Cup 2014 qualifying group, but the fortunes of both nations have taken different trajectories since then.
Serbia failed to qualify for Euro 2016, finishing second-bottom of Portugal’s group with a paltry four points. As we all know, Wales not only qualified for the tournament in France, they went on to reach the semi-finals where they were beaten by eventual winners Portugal. The bookmakers have priced Wales up at a big price due to injury worries, but have they underestimated Chris Coleman and his squad? The Welsh manager admitted that this was more than just another World Cup qualifier, but it takes on extra significance for his squad as they look to avenge that damning defeat at the start of his reign.
Another interesting game on Sunday is the one between Iceland and Croatia in qualifying group I. These two teams are first and second in the group – Croatia top with 13 points, and Iceland on their heels with 10 points. Both Ukraine and Turkey are waiting in the wings with 8 points to their name, so this is a highly competitive section. Iceland stole the hearts of Europe with their displays at Euro 2016, and they’ve continued in good style in Russia 2018 qualifying. Croatia were tipped as a ‘dark horse’ in France, but they exited the tournament at the second round stage – losing out to a late goal in extra time against Portugal. More will be expected from such a talented pool of players, and they are on course to qualify for the next World Cup.
Serbia v Wales
Gareth Bale, Neil Taylor, James Collins, Andy King, Hal Robson-Kanu and Ben Woodburn are all out injured, so Chris Coleman does need to shuffle his squad considerably. Five uncapped players have been included in the Welsh 23, but there is still a smattering of quality which should ensure they are competitive in this game. They are unbeaten so far in this qualifying campaign, although the only win came against Moldova in the opening game. Four draws with Republic of Ireland, Austria, Georgia, and Serbia leaves them on seven points, four adrift of joint leaders Serbia and Ireland. That most recent meeting with the Serbians in Wales last November ended in a 1-1 draw, Gareth Bale’s opener ruled out by Aleksander Mitrovic’s late equaliser.
Serbia have a fully fit squad to choose from, and it’s understandable that they should be favourites to win on home ground. However, it’s only been five wins in the last ten at home with two draws and three defeats, so they are not infallible by any stretch of the imagination. One of those defeats – a 3-0 reverse to Albania – should be ignored because the result was awarded by UEFA after crowd trouble. It still remains that both Portugal and Denmark have won in Serbia in recent times, while both Ireland and Russia have secured draws here.
The Welsh will be fighting tooth and nail to avoid another humiliation and gain revenge, and they are worth a punt to continue their unbeaten record in World Cup qualifying.
Iceland v Croatia
It’s a meeting of the top two in group I, and Croatia are taken to come out on top at +110 with Ladbrokes.
Iceland’s form has been too good for too long for anyone to say they are punching above their weight or undeserving of results, but they are taking on one of the best sides in Europe here.
A Croatia side built around Real Madrid playmaker Luca Modric, is a force to be reckoned with. They showed their quality at Euro 2016, outplaying and beating Spain, and were possibly a little unfortunate to get knocked out by a last-gasp winner against Portugal. An early draw with Kazakhstan got them off to a muddling start in the group, but four straight victories have taken them to the summit. One of those was a 2-0 win over Iceland back in November, despite playing more than half of the match with ten men, and they’ll be hoping to achieve a repeat of the result on Sunday evening.
Iceland and their fans are one of the enduring memories of Euro 2016, and many neutrals will be hoping they make it to Russia 2018 for a repeat. They look well on course to challenge for at least a play off place by finishing second, and will look for at least a point, if not three, from this game. One suspects that they may have to play second fiddle though, and Croatia will probably have much more of the ball and much more attacking intent. This isn’t an easy game to call, but there is a bit of value in backing Croatia – who on paper at least, look far superior to Iceland.
Wales or Draw – double chance
Sunday 11th June, 19:45 GMT
Croatia to beat Iceland
Sunday 11th June, 19:45 GMT