Inconsistent Serbia left to rue near misses

NELSPRUIT - Serbia had high hopes of reaching the knockout stage of the World Cup but inconsistency, poor finishing and questionable team selection cost them dearly and left them bottom of a tight Group D.

Having lost their opening game to Ghana 1-0, the Serbians bounced back superbly to beat Germany by the same score, only to be defeated by Australia 2-1 when advancing to the last 16 seemed within reach.

Serbia missed too many clear-cut chances in all three matches and conceded soft goals, while the team also struggled to keep up with a high-tempo game throughout the tournament.

Their coach Radomir Antic put on a brave face after the Australia defeat and defended his players while also blaming the refereeing for an early exit. However, once the dust has settled, he is more likely to take a good look at the mirror.

"I have no complaints about the team effort, we deserved a lot more and we are upset about some of the decisions that didn't go our way in the match against Australia," Antic told a news conference after seeing his team go out.

"This generation will definitely stay together because it's made a good impression and we have a lot to look forward to in the future."

FRESH BLOOD

Perhaps Serbia do, but only if Antic is prepared to inject some fresh blood into the side and be more flexible when his automatic starters misfire and run out of steam, as they invariably did in every match.

The stubborn 61-year old coach was unequivocally loyal to towering striker Nikola Zigic, who kept missing one sitter after another, while he kept the crafty Zoran Tosic on the bench until the final 30 minutes of Serbia's futile campaign.

When Serbia were 2-0 down against Australia, Antic threw on Tosic and the diminutive winger made an immediate impact, setting up fellow substitute Marko Pantelic to produce a dramatic finish.

Captain Dejan Stankovic also looked a spent force, unable to produce the same kind of consistency for Serbia over 90 minutes as he did for his club Inter Milan as a role player during their treble-winning season.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was out-of-form central defender Nemanja Vidic, who conceded the team was ill-equipped for gruellng battles against fitter, hard-working opponents doing more running off the ball.

"We got punished because Australia had the courage to attack and put pressure on us in the second half, while we struggled to keep up with the torrid pace of the game," said Vidic.

"We are bitterly disappointed because we played some good football in fits and starts and it just wasn't enough to fulfil our ambition of progressing to the knockout stage of the competition."

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