By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's chances of progressing to the last 16 in South Africa are likely to hinge on a fast start and a renewed belief in their strength in depth that has left them sadly lacking in previous major tournaments.
Local media gave Serbia only a slim chance of reaching the 2010 World Cup after their failure to qualify for Euro 2008 under Spaniard Javier Clemente was followed by a five-match winless streak under Miroslav Djukic.
He was sacked to make way for Radomir Antic and there was little in the early stages of his reign to suggest the former Real Madrid and Barcelona coach had the magic ingredients to restore Serbia's fortunes.
An unimpressive 2-0 win over Faroe Islands in the opening match was followed by a 2-1 defeat in France, but six wins and a draw followed to secure Serbia's passage with one match to spare.
Serbia qualified for their first major tournament as an independent nation under Antic but whether they can live up to growing expectations at home in the finals will largely depend on their ability to cope with a tough tournament schedule.
Qualifiers in Europe are played over a period of 14 months and the format allows all entrants enough time to prepare for each battle on the road to the finals, which is often essential to second-tier teams such as Serbia.
The grueling, 32-team tournament in South Africa leaves no room for error, with three group games crammed into 10 days followed by three knockout rounds leading up to the final.
Depth in the squad becomes essential when injuries and suspensions mount and although Serbia now appear to have their strongest outfit in the past few years, they will be wary of the 2006 World Cup fiasco when they crashed out with three group-stage defeats as Serbia and Montenegro.
Their chances of reaching the last 16 from Group D including 2006 semi-finalists Germany, Australia and Ghana may rest heavily on the outcome of their opening match against the Ghanaians in Pretoria on June 13.
The Serbians have never beaten a top team either as an independent nation or as Serbia and Montenegro, the 6-0 drubbing by Argentina in the 2006 World Cup being their lowest ebb in a major tournament.
However, the strength of the current crop, including a wealth of experience epitomized by big names such as Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Inter Milan midfielder Dejan Stankovic, coupled with several talented players in their prime, suggests they could be one of the dark horses of the tournament.
(Editing by Miles Evans)