The Serbian national team will travel northwest to face Ireland in an international friendly clash Wednesday to kick off the 2014 slate for both squads.
After falling short of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Serbia are looking to kick off 2014 on a high note by turning in a solid performance against an Ireland team still looking to gain their footing. While Serbia falls at a respectable No. 29 in the FIFA rankings after avoiding a loss for the final five months of 2013, Ireland are all the way back at 67th after faltering as of late.
Hope springs eternal for both of these squads as they look ahead to future competitions but with many of these players focusing largely on their club play in recent months, they will mainly just be looking to rekindle chemistry and form with their international companions.
Let's break down the Ireland-Serbia matchup.
When: Wednesday, March 5 at 2:45 p.m. ET (7:45 p.m. GMT)
Where: Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland
Watch: GOL TV
Top Storyline: Can Ireland Replace Robbie Keane By Committee?
The Republic of Ireland will be without their star player and top offensive threat as Robbie Keane has opted to stay back in America and practice with the Los Angeles Galaxy, per Irish Mirror's Paul O'Hehir.
The question now is—who will replace him?
Shane Long will be looked to as the main option to lead an Ireland squad that will need to play balanced in order to replace Keane.
The 27-year-old has never truly gotten his shot to head up the Irish attack with Keane often in the fold, so this opportunity will allow Long to build up his confidence and chemistry with his teammates.
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill spoke on replacing Keane, per O'Hehir:
The records are not that fantastic. As every day goes on, Robbie gets a bit older but he’s still capable of getting a goal out of the blue.
But I think Shane Long will have gained confidence from his move to Hull and because he’s been doing fine.
He and Jelavic have made a really decent contribution to Hull’s possibly dangerous position at one stage, but now they are pulling themselves out of trouble.
But it’s up to all the centre forwards here to make their mark from here on in.
It will obviously take a by-committee approach to replace Keane. There just isn't the level of depth on this national team that there is on many other elite squads that can replace stars of his caliber.
The remaining strikers on Ireland's squad for Wednesday's match have a combined 18 goals in their international careers while Keane alone has 62 goals. Replacing a player like that is simply impossible, so it will take an added effort from everyone in the starting 11 in order to minimize the impact of his absence.
Against a team like Serbia, however, that could be easier said than done. The Serbians haven't lost in all competitions since August, and they have shown great form in the latter half of 2013 despite coming up short in World Cup qualification.
How will it end?
Not having Keane in the fold will knock the wind out of the sails of Ireland but playing at home will allow them to come out inspired anyway.
However, with a team of Serbia's ability coming in, it will be a tough-earned draw if the Irish are able to use the location to their advantage.
Ireland 1, Serbia 1