LONDON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace revolution can help Luka Milivojevic secure his place in Serbia’s World Cup team, the midfielder said after captaining his club side to a 1-0 Premier League win over Burnley on Saturday.
The victory lifted Palace five points clear of the relegation zone, where they had languished for most of the first half of the season after the worst start by any club to a Premier League campaign.
Former England coach Hodgson, who took over from sacked manager Frank de Boer in September, has presided over a remarkable recovery in Palace’s fortunes, lifting them to 12th in the table.
“We had a very bad start to the season, the first seven games we didn’t win, we didn’t draw, but the last 16 games after the (first) seven we took 25 points,” Milivojevic said.
“I think it has been a big turnaround for us, we know it will be very hard until the end, even if we are now five points out of the relegation zone, but I think we have a team to stay in the league,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“You have to be focussed, concentrate and play game by game,” added Milivojevic, who could enjoy a double celebration in the summer if Palace stay in the Premier League and Serbia get through a tough World Cup group.
The 26-year-old hopes to retain his place in the national team, having played in all 10 of their qualifying matches. He believes that continued good performances from him and Palace will see him through.
“I just think about doing my job, to continue to do what I did in the past, to be healthy first of all and I’m sure I will be ready for the World Cup,” said Milivojevic, who joined Palace from Olympiakos Piraeus last January.
Serbia, who have the same “Eagles” nickname as Palace, face Brazil, Costa Rica and Switzerland in a tough Group E in the June 14–July 15 tournament in Russia.
“The group is very strong, for sure Brazil will be the favourites, then we have Costa Rica and Switzerland, we’re going to fight with them for the second place and in my opinion the chances are 50-50,” Milivojevic said.
The former Yugoslavia, World Cup semi-finalists in 1930 and 1962, were among the strongest teams in Europe and rarely absent from major tournaments before the country split into smaller nations after the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
“Before this qualification for the World Cup (in Russia) it was a bit of a hard situation, there was a lot of pressure on the players because our people expect from the national team to qualify every time for the big tournaments,” Milivojevic said.
“But now the pressure is gone, we have qualified and we are waiting for the new pressure, what we’re going to do about it,” he said laughing.
Milivojevic feels that qualifying for Russia could mark a turning point for Serbian football and he pointed also to the improved performance of the country’s clubs in Europe this season.
“We had a lot of success last year, not only with the national team, we had a good year with our two best teams, (his former club) Red Star (Belgrade) and Partizan (Belgrade),” he said.
“Both teams passed the group stage in the Europa League and now they are among the best 32.” (Reporting by Rex Gowar; Editing by Toby Davis)