Swiss on a roll

Switzerland progress to last-16 with thrilling, ill-tempered win over Serbia

Remo Freuler’s goal was decisive in a 3-2 win.

Serbia 2

Switzerland 3

SWITZERLAND WILL PLAY in the World Cup knockout phase yet again, playing Serbia on their own, bonkers terms and winning a game that cleaved into a rip-roaring first half and a sour, bitty second. 

Serbia came into the tournament as dark horses having finished ahead of Portugal (and Ireland) in qualifying but timed their run here poorly, their previously suspect defence imploding in Qatar and leaving their heavyweight attack with too great a burden to carry. They scored twice in the first half but conceded just as often, with Remo Freuler’s goal two minutes after half-time a blow from which Serbia could not recover. 

Switzerland sauntered through the game, Cameroon’s late winning goal against Brazil imbuing the final minutes with more meaning than the Swiss perhaps realised: another goal would have sent them top of the group. In the end they took the mini-stalemate, and now progress to play Portugal in the last-16.

Beforehand, this had all the sweepings of a classic: the Swiss, best at defending, needed only a draw, while Serbia – whose porcelain defence fractures under the weight of their fabulous, hydra-headed attack – had to win to progress.

There were also fraught personal and political entanglements. Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated their goals against Serbia four years ago with a nod to their Kosovan heritage, whose independence Serbia does not recognise.

Tensions were further inflamed last week, when a flag bearing a map of Serbia that including Kosovo along with the writing, ‘There will be no surrender’ was hung in the Serbian dressing room before the game with Brazil. 

serbia-v-switzerland-fifa-world-cup-2022-group-g-stadium-974 Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates his goal. PA PA

Shaqiri was restored to the Swiss starting team and lit the touchpaper after 20 minutes, cutting in from the right to fire a shot beyond Serbia goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic.

He ran to the Serbian crowd and through their wall of boos, putting his finger to his lips and then pointing at the name on the back of his jersey. The minutes before that game had already packed in more incident than we’ve seen at many entire games at this World Cup.

The Swiss’ displayed an exquisite kind of disregard for the pre-game choreography, ignoring the countdown to kick off by remaining in their huddle as the game was supposed to start.

Maybe they were just drawing breath for what was to come: they should have led after 30 seconds, Milinkovic-Savic blocking from Embolo from close range and then pushing away Xhaka’s volley. 

If there was a philosophy underpinning Dragan Stojković’s team selection it was probably, ‘Ah, f**k it.’

He restored Dusan Vlahovic to play alongside Aleksandar Mitrovic up front and tucked playmaker Dusan Tadic behind them, giving wing-backs Filip Kostic and Andrija Zivkovic licence to bomb on.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, nobody’s idea of Claude Makelele, played in a thin double pivot with Sasa Lukic. While it made Serbia frightfully easy to play through, their attacking threat was lethal, ceaseless. 

Zivkovic cut in off the right and hammered a shot against the post before Serbia fell behind, with the ball bouncing off Mitrovic and then Vlahovic before resting in Gregory Kobel’s arms.

Tadic roved about and conducted play, and it was he who created Serbia’s beautifully smooth equaliser, swinging a cross into the box to which Mitrovic arced his run and met with precise timing, looping a header beyond Kobel. 

Shaqiri, performing as if this was the only game he has really wanted to play in the last two years, burst behind the Serbian defence and killed a through ball with a velcro right-footed touch, then arrowing the ball into the side-netting with his left. 

The game continued to swing wildly and Serbia soon took the lead, Vlahovic somehow imbalancing himself and then hooking the ball into the far corner beyond Kobel. He ran down the touchline and then embraced some of his defenders, whom he would soon have reason to curse.

It was Switzerland’s turn to level just before half-time, Serbia undone by trying to play a truly brainless offside. Instead Silvan Widmer was well behind their leaden line, and his brilliant cross was finished at close range by Breel Embolo. 

Stojković sat slumped on the bench, bug-eyed and shimmering with sweat, looking like he was in the middle of the worst trip of his life. That’s no edible Dragan, that’s just your defence. 

Two minutes into the second half, off we went again. This time it was Switzerland’s turn to take the lead, a devastating Zorro mark of a goal: Ruben Vargas running diagonally to meet Shaqiri’s cross and flicking it behind him for the arriving Remo Freuler, who finished first-time. 

The fun kept coming. Embolo somehow spooned the ball over from two yards out after Milenkovic clumsily allowed the ball through his legs. Stojković reacted by removing a centre-back for a midfielder. Double down. 

When Mitrovic went down too easily to try and win a penalty and left the referee rightly unmoved, there was a flashpoint involving the Serbian bench, with a few bibbed reserves wandering onto the pitch despite Stojković’s protestations and Embolo left angered by something that had been said. 

serbia-v-switzerland-fifa-world-cup-2022-group-g-stadium-974 Tempers fray. PA PA

The technicolour splash of the first two-thirds of the game was now drained, replaced by something greyer and dispiriting, with the stadium announcer calling for an end to “discriminatory chants and gestures” among the crowd. 

Serbia’s attacking threat dissipated into the air, its last wheeze the baffling decision to take off Tadic with 12 minutes to go. Serbia’s was a desperately disappointing wilt, their frustration bubbling over when Mitrovic took a yellow card for a pointless volley of anger at the referee.

The game further soured, Milenkovic shoving Xhaka in front of the Swiss fans, which sparked a series of posturing skirmishes. Cameroon’s goal hardly caused a ripple as the Swiss players hugged each other on the bench, unaware of the potential benefits. They decided they had done enough, and will be more than a match for Portugal.  

Serbia: Vanja; Milinkovic, Veljkovic (Gudelj, 54′), Pavolovic; Zivkovic (Radonjic, 78′); Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Maksimovic, 67′), Lukic; Kostic; Tadic (captain) (Djuricic, 78′), Mitrovic, Vlahovic (Jovic, 54′)

Switzerland: Kobel; Widmer, Akanji, Schar, Rodriguez; Freuler, Sow, (Zakaria 67′),  Xhaka (captain); Shaqiri (Fernandes, 67′) , Embolo, Vargas (Fassnacht, 83′)

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