October 30, 2017 / 3:55 PM / a year ago

Serbia axe coach Muslin after reaching World Cup

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia axed their coach Slavoljub Muslin on Monday in a shock move which came three weeks after the 64-year old journeyman steered the Balkan nation to the 2018 World Cup, their first major tournament in eight years.

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifications - Europe - Serbia vs Georgia - Rajko Mitic Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia - October 9, 2017 Serbia coach Slavoljub Muslin REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The Serbian FA (FSS) and its chief Slavisa Kokeza had the final say in a protracted row with Muslin over his squad selection and what they deemed were below-par performances in the qualifying campaign.

“The FSS, headed by president Slavisa Kokeza, convened and decided to part company with Muslin by mutual consent,” the body said on its website (www.fss.org).

“Muslin’s assistant Mladen Krstajic will take over as the caretaker and will be in charge for friendlies against China and South Korea (in November), until a new head coach is appointed. We thank Muslin for good cooperation and his accomplishment.”

Muslin’s achievement was no small feat for a nation that last played on the big stage at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, although Serbia’s results flattered their performances for much of the 2018 qualifying campaign.

A revamped and unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation rode their luck in many games to finish top of their group with 20 points from 10 matches, one more than Ireland who reached the playoffs and three ahead of Wales.

But it was Muslin’s decision to axe versatile central midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from the squad and the refusal to even consider his inclusion in the World Cup roster that infuriated his bosses as well as many fans and pundits.

Milinkovic-Savic has impressed at Lazio since he joined the Serie A side from Belgium’s Genk in 2015, having been a key player in Serbia’s Under-20 side which won the 2015 World Cup and the Under-19 European championship in 2013.

Muslin was adamant the creative playmaker could not fit into his rigid formation with two wing-backs and a pair of enforcers in midfield, turning swathes of public opinion against him.

He was also reportedly opposed to the idea of injecting fresh blood into the World Cup squad at the expense of several stalwarts, who have experience but lack the energy levels required in a month-long tournament.

Montenegro’s Serb coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic tops the list of potential candidates to take over after a solid World Cup qualifying campaign in which the Montenegrins finished third in their group behind Poland and Denmark.

Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Ed Osmond

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