Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 8/11
The qualifications for the 2022 World Cup have begun, the first round is over as far as the European game is concerned, and now it’s time to move on to the second.
There weren’t any surprises midweek in Group A, at least not in terms of results, though the way they came about could be described as unexpected. Be that as it may, Serbia will welcome Portugal to the Rajko Mitic stadium in Belgrade, the home of 1991 European Cup winners Red Star, on Saturday evening.
Serbia triumphed over the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday in a game of several twists and turns. The visitors had taken the lead through Alan Browne, and Dusan Vlahovic equalized in the five minutes before the break. Aleksandar Mitrovic came off the bench at haltime to score twice, setting the score at 3-1 by minute 75, and James Collins took advantage of a defensive howler from Stefan Mitrovic to score Ireland’s second goal, the final of the game four minutes from time.
The balance of the game shifted with the result. Coach Dragan Stojkovic’s team entered the contest looking rather shy and for a while it seemed they would struggle greatly against a very disciplined and tactically prepared Ireland side, but many things clicked into place after Vlahovic’s goal. It proved a great idea to introduce Mitrovic for the second half, and the two goals by the Fulham striker reflected Serbia’s domination well, until Collins pulled a goal back. Then the Irish charged, but failed to find an equalizer.
Given that this was the first game in charge for Stojkovic and that the Red Star icon had very little time to prepare for it, it was a very good result and a very important win over the team likely to prove the biggest rival in the race to secure the runner-up spot in the group.
However, Portugal are a very different prospect and Stojkovic has already announced changes in his team for this match, though he stressed there would be no change in their approach. He remained coy on the names of the players for the starting XI, but many in the country expect Milos Veljkovic to get the nod ahead of Stefan Mitrovic in the back line, Nikola Maksimovic and Nemanja Gudelj to replace Uros Racic and Stefan Lukic in the middle of the park, with Lazio star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic behind Ajax winger Dusan Tadic, the team captain, and Vlahovic.
That would mean brace scorer Mitrovic starting on the bench once more.
Serbia’s win over Ireland may have lifted the mood in their country, but that cannot exactly be said of Portugal’s 1-0 win over Azerbaijan on the same evening. The reigning European champions were officially the hosts of the match, but it was actually played at the Juventus Stadium (Allianz Stadium) in Turin, Italy.
Portugal had 67% of possession and produced a total of 29 shots, 14 on target, and yet they had to settle for the three points to be handed to them by an own-goal from Maksim Medvedev in the 37th minute. So unlike the game in Belgrade, it was a rather one-way contest, notably (and expectedly) less exciting.
With the quality in their ranks incredibly obvious, Portugal will have been disappointed not to have managed to boost their goal-difference in a home match against one of the group underdogs.
A small digression – many found it interesting that neither Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal against Azerbaijan, nor Erling Haaland in Norway’s triumph over Gibraltar, nor Kylian Mbappe in France’s share of the spoils with Ukraine, managed to score on the opening day of these qualifications.
Be that as it may, Portugal will be highly motivated to perform and win in Belgrade, and justify the status of the group favourites in the process.
It’s expected that Fernando Santos, praised by his opposite number as one of the best coaches in the world, will name Bruno Fernandes to start in Belgrade, having sent the Manchester United playmaker on from the bench against Azerbaijan. His creativity is certainly needed.
Liverpool forward Diogo Jota and Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix will also be hoping to start alongside captain Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead of Eintracht’s Andre Silva and Woves’ Pedro Neto.
Serbia did what they’d set out to do against Ireland, and they probably wouldn’t see a defeat here as too much of a problem as far as their chances for reaching the tournament next year go. On the other hand, Portugal will look to set matters right after the narrow squeak past Azarbaijan, and there is so much quality in that team that it’s hard to imagine any outcome apart from their victory.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 8/11
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