Switzerland rubber-stamped their place in the round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar by emerging deservedly victorious from a difficult and exciting match against Serbia in the last round of Group G.
Xherdan Shaqiri broke the deadlock with a deflected 20th-minute shot, Aleksandar Mitrovic equalized with a perfectly hit header six minutes later, Dusan Vlahovic struck a goal of his own to put Serbia ahead in the 35th, and Breel Embolo set the score back level just before the break. It was eventually Remo Freuler who got on the end of a superb flick from Ruben Vargas to score the winning goal for the Swiss.
Obviously in need of three points to progress from the group, Serbia wanted to attack from the start and take matters into their own hands, but they probably didn’t expect Switzerland, who would likely have been through to the next stage with a draw as well, to do the same. The result was that the Swiss had two glorious opportunities to score in the first minute, but Vanja Milinkovic-Savic delievered two fine saves.
The game was completely open, with plenty of good attacking football and some questionable defending at both ends, and it was always only a matter of time before one team or the other scored. Apart from the four goals in the first half, there were plenty of chances too, the best of which arguably fell to Andrija Zivkovic who hit the post for Serbia from just outside the box.
But it was a very different situation after the break. Freuler’s winning goal came less than three minutes into the second half, and later his team came close to killing the contest off completely through Embolo and substitute Christian Fassnacht, but Vanja Milinkovic-Savic denied the latter while the former chipped his close-range effort over the bar.
Tactically, Switzerland frequently managed to overload the flanks and most of their opportunities came through those corridors. If he remains in charge of the Serbian team, Dragan Stojkovic will have to find a way to rectify that particular problem.
Xhaka in the thick of things again
Granit Xhaka has always been a controversial figure on the pitch, particularly when playing against Serbia. He wasn’t able to resist provoking the Serbian players and fans in 2018, and it was the same again this time, despite the promise reportedly given to the Swiss FA that he would refrain from doing anything like that.
In the 65th minute, Mitrovic wanted a penalty for a tug from behind by Fabian Schar which obviously prevented him from taking a shot, but the Fulham striker went down far too late and too dramatically for it to be given. And as the players and staff on the Serbian bench rose to their feet, Xhaka flashed an extremely rude gesture their way.
A number of Serbian substitutes raced towards the Arsenal midfielder, who then simply fled the scene and left his teammates to sort the situation out for him. It did the trick; a full-scale scuffle broke, leaving the Serbian players livid with anger and clearly unable to focus on football anymore.
Xhaka was at the centre of another controversial situation later on, when he provoked Serbia defender Nikola Milenkovic into shoving him forcefully and almost ended up being thrown over the commercial board into the stands. He was given a belated yellow card for that, and not being content with it, he tried to provoke Mitrovic into reacting as well. Mitrovic’s reaction was, however, strictly verbal.
There can be no doubt about the fact that Serbia showed a certain degree of immaturity. It appears the lesson of 2018 hadn’t been learned, and the same mistake was made again. They were thoroughly rattled by Xhaka’s appalling behaviour, and from that point on, it was pretty clear how the game would end. They were completely incapable of performing under pressure.
But on the other hand, such behaviour on a football pitch really shouldn’t be allowed to fly. Xhaka is certainly no stranger to being booked and even sent off; his stats in that aspect speak volumes about his passion frequently melting into blatant disrespect and unsportsmanlike conduct. This, however, was much worse – he seemed in full control of what he was doing. This wasn’t passion, this was planned out in advance, and having handed him a fine four years ago, FIFA really need to throw the book at him this time.
They probably won’t, though. He’s already been declared the Man of the Match. Well, he was certainly the man behind the moment which settled the match.
Be that as it may, Switzerland won the day and will deservedly play in the round of 16, where a duel against Portugal on Tuesday awaits. It will be a tough match against a squad packed with world-class talent, and the provocation powers of Xhaka will not help them there.
But even if they go out of the tournament at that point, the nation will probably happy with what their team has done so far.
As for Serbia, it’s back to the drawing board again. It’s become a thing for them, playing a marvelous qualifying campaign before delivering next to nothing at the actual tournament.
What they need is stability. Stojkovic had his hand in some things that went against them in Qatar, but he will have gained some valuable experience from it and there’s no real need for him to be replaced.