Buoyant after positive results in their opening games, Serbia met the Swiss in Kaliningrad in a crunch fixture that both teams would have highlighted prior to the tournament as a must-win. With Brazil the overwhelming favourites to progress, the two European teams know they are fighting over the second qualifying spot. The Swiss earned a well-deserved point against Brazil largely thanks to a dogged defensive display in which they were successful in preventing the Brazilians from playing in between the lines. Borussia Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji was sensational that night – at only 22 and winning his 9th cap, he is a future leader for Vladimir Petković’s Rossocrociati (Red Crosses). Serbia were less convincing against a Costa Rican side who had their chances to share the spoils in Samara. Reliant on a wonderful trade-mark free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov to break the deadlock, Бели Орлови/Бели Орлови (The White Eagles) failed to click in midfield and but for a commanding performance from Partizan goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković, it could have been a disappointing start to the finals. Mladen Krstajić’s men started the better of the teams tonight, however. Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matić doing what he does best by winning the ball in midfield before releasing Dušan Tadić down the right. His sumptuous ball into the penalty area was met wonderfully by Aleksandar Mitrović to head the Serbs in front. The Newcastle United forward (who enjoyed a prolific campaign in the Championship with Fulham last term) attached himself to Akanji’s defensive partner Fabian Schär in the opening period in an attempt to assert his physical superiority. It worked – cushioning the ball on his chest from a Branislav Ivanović cross, Mitrović peeled away from Schär and acrobatically sent a good effort narrowly over Yann Sommer’s crossbar. The Swiss then wasted a glorious chance to level with their first attack of the game. AC MIlan’s superb left back Ricardo Rodríguez dispossessed Ivanović on the edge of the Serb box, wasting no time to expertly pick out compatriot Blerim Džemaili, only to see the Bologna man drag his shot horribly wide from 8 yards out. The Swiss slowly started to come into the game after a pedestrian start. Dynamic transition play from the defensive to attacking thirds, led by the distribution of Akanji and Rodriguez, was beginning to cause issues for the Serbian midfield. Džemaili collected an intricate through ball from Steven Zuber but his poked effort goalwards lacked power and was comfortably parried away by Stojković. Just as the Swiss looked the more likely to level before the break, a Serbian corner from the right found Duško Tošić unmarked 5 yards out in the centre of the goal. Somehow the Guangzhou R&F Football Club defender blazed his header wide and a collective head-in-hands expression could be witnessed by every Serbian player, coach and supporter inside the stadium.
Mario Gavranović replaced the ineffective Haris Seferović for the Swiss at the break, Vladimir Petković choosing to exploit the flanks in search of an equaliser. The Serbs failed to adapt and it didn’t take long for the Swiss to level. Another marauding run from Rodriguez on the counter saw the ball reach Xherdan Shaqiri at the far edge of the box. His shot was deflected into the path of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, who thundered a left-foot strike back across goal and past the static Stojković. Game on! Moments later the Swiss could have been ahead. The enigmatic Shaqiri, ever blowing hot and cold, pops up on the right and weaves his way between two Serb defenders before curling an outrageous effort past the Serbian keeper. Despair, however, as the ball clips the outside of the post and deflects wide. Into the final 10 minutes and it is anyones game, both teams trading blows across the park in a thrilling contest.
A huge moment seconds before the 90 are up – the brilliant Akanji clears a Serbian cross with another fine header. Rodriguez moves the ball forward quickly to Zuber who spots Shaqiri’s clever cross-field run and slips him in behind the Serbian defence. The Stoke City man bursts into the box and slides the ball between the advancing Stojković and tracking Tošić to send the Swiss fans into jubilation. It is no more than their efforts deserve in the second half, and due credit to Petković and his tactical switch at half time. The Swiss go into the Costa Rica game knowing a draw will be enough to send them through to the knockout stages. Serbia need to pick themselves up off the floor and find a way to beat Brazil to qualify. They were again hampered by a lack of midfield creativity, Krstajić’s tactics were far too one-dimensional as Mitrović tired late on.
Man of the Match: Ricardo Rodríguez (SUI)
Best: Manuel Akanji, Ricardo Rodríguez, Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri (SUI), Sergej Milinković-Savić, Aleksandar Mitrović (SRB)