This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Watford matchday programme – 12th December 2017
The festive period is the perfect time to reflect on the last 12 months, while also looking forward to a fresh start with the turning of a new year. As he approaches his first anniversary at Palace and with a World Cup on the horizon, Luka Milivojevic speaks to Jonathon Rogers about all things club and country.
Earlier this month, billions of eyes across all seven continents were glued to television screens as the 2018 World Cup draw took place in Moscow, and as soon as the fate of those 32 nations fortunate enough to qualify was decided, the countdown could officially begin as excitement quickly bubbled ahead of football’s global showpiece.
One man probably more psyched than most for the big kick-off in June is Luka Milivojevic. Having played a key role for Serbia by featuring in nine of their 10 qualifiers that saw them reach their first finals since 2010, his eyes would have lit up when he saw his nation drawn in the same group of the team that encapsulates the World Cup more than any other – Brazil.
There may be seven months before he gets the chance to test himself against Neymar, Coutinho and co while the world watches, but the Palace man is buzzing about the prospect. Having come through an evenly-matched group containing Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Austria in pole position, losing just once in the process, the Serbs deserve their spot in the competition, and having also been paired with Switzerland and Costa Rica in Group E, there is a strong possibility that the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolorov, Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Tadic could reach the knockout stages where anything can happen.
Looking back on the fledgling country’s achievement at reaching their second finals in the guise of Serbia, Milivojevic said: “I think it’s the biggest thing in my career so far. I’m looking forward to playing in the World Cup because you can only play in one twice in eight years, or three times in 12 so it’s hard to get into, especially for teams from Europe. We had some good group matches and we qualified top of it and I’m very excited to get to Russia.
“The group is very strong. When you play against Brazil, you’re playing against the best national team in the world. They’re going to be favourites to win the World Cup, but I’m very excited to play against them. I read in some Serbian newspapers that Brazil will be first in the group, we will be second and then it’ll be Switzerland and Costa Rica, but I think people from Switzerland and Costa Rica will think the same as us.
“To be honest, Brazil are favourites to finish top of the group, and the other three teams will fight very hard to take second position. If we finish second in the group, that will be a big success for our national team, but even if do we might then have to play against Germany!”
By the time the festivities kick off on 12th June, Milivojevic could be joined at the tournament by a host of his Eagles teammates. Chung-yong Lee played eight times for South Korea to help them earn a spot in a tasty looking group involving Germany, Sweden and Mexico, while Christian Benteke scored three times in two appearances for Belgium to set up meetings with Panama, Tunisia and of course England – a scenario that Ruben Loftus- Cheek and Andros Townsend are taking interest in. Yohan Cabaye and Mamadou Sakho will also harbour hopes of forcing their way into France’s 23-man squad, while Pape Souare will be hoping to rediscover full fitness in time to possibly squeeze into Senegal’s travelling party. Milivojevic reveals that the talk in Palace’s continental dressing room has already turned to the tournament, although his red and blue-based focus right now is on the colour of his club shirt, rather than his national team’s flag.
“It wasn’t that long ago that Serbia played South Korea in a friendly and I spoke to Chungy about it,” the 24-time capped midfielder said. “Despite neither of us travelling we spoke about our teams, and I’ve also talked to Christian too; they [Belgium] are very successful in international football and they have to be one of the favourites because they have a lot of very good players. They’re with England, and that group looks very hard.
“Ahead of the World Cup, the most important thing is to be healthy and help my team as much as possible. We didn’t start this season very well so my priority will be to stay in the league, and if I can help I will try to do that. If I can play until the end of the season without injuries, that would be great for me.”
It would also be a huge boost to Palace, who have leaned heavily on the defensive midfielder since his arrival from Olympiakos back in January. Now approaching the first anniversary of his move to south London, he has had time to reflect on an action-packed 12 months. “It’s gone very well, especially because we stayed in the league which was our priority and I was happy to be a part of that,” he said. “I adapted pretty fast because the lads helped me a lot, and I have to give them the biggest thanks for that. Living in London in the beginning was tough because I didn’t know the city or many people, but now it is much better for me and my family. We have settled nicely and are very happy, and if you are happy outside of football, it can help your confidence.
“The most difficult thing for me was playing games at 3pm, because at Olympiakos we played in the evenings around 7.30pm or 8.30pm, and in the Champions League it could be at 9.45pm. I would wake up, have breakfast and lunch and then sleep for two hours and prepare myself for the game. Here, I lost that rhythm, but now it’s fine.
“My favourite moments were the victories against Arsenal and Hull City, because after that game we were mathematically safe and the atmosphere was amazing. We won 4-0 and we got to celebrate with our fans, and so that was a very happy moment for me.”
It is no surprise that those games against the Gunners and Tigers stand out for the 26-year-old as he got on the scoresheet in both fixtures via two well-struck penalties. All three of his Eagles goals to date have been from 12 yards, and that pressure bestowed on him by Sam Allardyce is one that he is happy to burden.
Giving an insight into how he became Palace’s penalty taker, he said: “I practiced free-kicks a lot when Big Sam was the manager and I was pretty successful in training! At that time I think we were struggling with penalties as we had missed some in the past, and then in a meeting in front of all the players, the manager asked me if I was confident enough to take them and I said yes. I’ve scored against Hull, Arsenal and West Ham so I’m happy. Hopefully it will continue because with that part of set-pieces, it is
very important to have someone who can score them.”
On the receiving end of Milivojevic’s unerring accuracy from the spot during that thrashing of Hull seven months ago was Marco Silva, who will be in the away dugout again this evening with his impressive Watford side. He is a man Palace’s number four knows all about, having worked under him in Greece before the pair took differing routes to England at the start of 2017, and he isn’t surprised about the Portuguese’s success on these shores.
“In my opinion, he was one of the best managers that I have had in my career, and he had a lot of influence on Olympiakos as a club and as a team,” Milivojevic evaluated. “With him, we broke all sorts of records including winning 21 games in a row in the league which was something amazing, and we were good in the Champions League and the cup too. I thought he would continue the next season but he didn’t have the right communication with the people that run the club, so he left and now he’s here. It’ll be nice to meet him again.”
When looking back on his first year in SE25, it is hard not to think about the three managers the Serb has already experienced on the Selhurst sideline. Having been quickly identified by Allardyce as the man to provide stability to the Eagles midfield, he was tried out as a centre-half by Frank de Boer during the Dutchman’s short tenure.
Restored to his familiar, preferred position by Roy Hodgson, Milivojevic reveals that the managerial merry-go-round doesn’t faze him, adding: “It hasn’t been difficult for me because in my career it’s happened a lot. In two-and-a-half years at Olympiakos I think I had six or seven managers, and that’s hard!
“I’m happy to be back playing in my position. With Frank de Boer I had a lot of questions about it, but he was the manager and had a different opinion, so we had some meetings. I respect that if he puts me somewhere that I will give my best, but it was the first time that I’d ever played as part of three at the back.
“When Roy came into the club he put players in their best positions. We had some difficulties in the beginning because the schedule was very hard for us, but after that things are much better and we are improving a lot.”