Serbia aim to banish ghosts of 2006

JOHANNESBURG, June 12 (Reuters) - Laying to rest the ghosts of a dismal last appearance at the World Cup will be the only thing on the Serbia players' minds when they face Ghana in their Group D opener in Pretoria on Sunday.

Dejan Stankovic, one of three survivors from Serbia and Montenegro's 2006 campaign when they lost all three group games including a 6-0 mauling by Argentina, was confident Serbia would shine in their maiden appearance as an independent nation.

"There is positive tension at every training session because we have invested a lot of effort and emotion to represent Serbia on its own in the World Cup," captain Stankovic told a news conference at the squad's Sunnyside Park hotel base.

"There is a bit of stage fright too and we know our fans will be outnumbered because the Ghanaians have the advantage of playing on their own continent but that shouldn't affect us.

"My Inter Milan Ghanaian team-mate Sulley Muntari told me their ambition was to reach the last four but we are confident that we can thwart their ambitions although we are a bit more realistic about our own chances." he added.

Marko Pantelic, also expected to start after scoring in a 4-3 win over Cameroon in Serbia's final warm-up game, believes Ghana will be a tougher nut to crack.

"Ghana are probably the best African team in the tournament with several outstanding individuals," the long-haired striker said. "They are a better team than Cameroon because they are faster, more solid and tougher in midfield."

MUNTARI DOUBT

With Ghana's midfield powerhouse Michael Essien ruled out of the World Cup with a long-term injury, Muntari could fill the void after recovering from a thigh injury he picked up in training on Thursday.

Ghana's Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac, who has said several times he would not be overwhelmed by patriotic sentiment, has a plethora of young players to choose from to inject fresh blood into the team.

Skipper Stephen Appiah, one of the stalwarts expected to provide much-needed steel to the World Cup's youngest team whose average age is 24, said Ghana faced an uphill task against Serbia at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

"I am scared of Serbia because they are aggressive and technically very good," he told the Ghanaian FA website.

The 30-year-old playmaker backed Rajevac's likely decision to field a conservative 4-5-1 formation, after the coach came under fire for being overly cautious in January's African Nations Cup where Ghana lost in the final.

"Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan were called defensive and yet they went all the way to win the Champions League," Appiah said. "In the end, people remember glory more than anything."