Rising stars shine bright

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

Although a national team since 1991 following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro already has established itself as a force in world soccer.

Following a 0-0 draw in Belgrade against Belgium on Saturday, Serbia and Montenegro finds itself on top of its World Cup qualifying group with 12 points in six matches.

The eastern Europeans reached the final 16 at the 1998 World Cup in France, when they were narrowly defeated 2-1 by the Netherlands.

It was a case of deja vu two years later as the Dutch defeated Serbia and Montenegro again, this time in the quarter-finals by an embarrassing 6-1 count.

The former Yugoslavs went into a bit of a tailspin, missing out on qualification for the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup and the 2004 Euro championships in Portugal.

But new manager Ilija Petkovic has put together a promising new crop of stars, such as Savo Milosevic of the Spanish first division side Osasuna, national team captain Darko Kovacevic, who plays for Real Sociedad, and striker Mateja Kezman, who moved over to Chelsea last season from PSV Eindhoven.

In a controversial move, Petkovic left both Kezman and Milosevic off the roster for Saturday's game against Belgium, because both, he said, had made too few starts for the club teams this season.

The lack of firepower up front, however, suggests he may have been better off including them in the scoreless draw against Belgium. Dejan Stankovic was named the team's captain for the game.

Included in their place were striker Mirko Vucinic, who netted 19 goals for Italian Serie A side Lecce, and Red Star Belgrade forward Nikola Zigic.

Nenad Jestrovic, who plays for Belgian side Anderlecht, missed two sitters against Belgium on Saturday and his partner up front, Danijel Ljuboja, also scuffed a close-range effort.

Belgian goalkeeper Silvio Proto produced several good saves to deny Zvonimir Vukoc and Vucinic.

"We could have opened the floodgates if we had scored in the early stages," Petkovic said. "But football is like that sometimes and we ended up with nothing to show for our domination.

"We played well and created a lot of chances but I guess we shouldn't be too disappointed after not being punished for our misses. It was always going to be a very tough group and we may stay unbeaten and not qualify. I hope our luck changes and we come out on top."

During Serbia and Montenegro's impressive march in World Cup qualifying, Petkovic introduced national team supporters to a slew of talented young players, including midfielder Simon Vukcevic of Partizan Belgrade, defender Dusan Basta of Red Star Belgrade and Vucinic.

The one aspect of play that has impressed the soccer world has been Serbia and Montenegro's defence, led by defender Ivica Dragutinovic of Standard Luttich and goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevric, who plays for Ankaraspor.

Serbia and Montenegro's next qualifying match is at home to Lithuania on Sept. 3.


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