Belgrade: Belgrade was gripped by anxiety before an overwhelming sense of joy and relief greeted Serbia reaching the World Cup with a nerve-jangling 1-0 home win over Georgia, thanks to substitute Aleksandar Prijovic’s 74th-minute goal on Monday.
The result, celebrated ecstatically in the cauldron of Red Star’s Rajko Mitic stadium, left the Balkan nation top of Group D with 21 points from 10 games.
It is the second time Serbia have reached the finals as an independent nation, having been knocked in the group stages of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and then missing the next three major international championships.
Coach Slavoljub Muslin, a journeyman who had been in charge of myriad European clubs before he took over at Serbia for the qualifying campaign, was elated.
“I expected a tough game against Georgia and suspected that the final step would be the most difficult,” he said.
“Georgia were the better side in the first half and I told the players to move up a gear after the break, though we had to keep it tight at the back too.”
Prijovic grabbed the winner with a fine finish to delight raucous home fans, who lit several flares to celebrate.
It came after anything but the expected plain sailing for the home side, who looked disjointed for much of the contest after missing their first chance to qualify when they lost 3-2 at Austria on Friday.
“Few fans believed after our barren eight-year run that we would qualify and all credit goes to the players, who left it all out there in every match,” Muslin added.
“The fans played a big part too and I thank them.”