Verdict: Total goals under 2.5
Best odds: 4/5
In a replay of a highly controversial clash from the World Cup in Russia four years ago, Serbia and Switzerland meet again on Friday at the Stadium 974 in the final round of the group stage of this year’s tournament in Qatar.
Serbia find themselves at the bottom of the table in Group G with just one point, after losing 2-0 to Brazil and dropping a two-goal lead against Cameroon in a game that ended 3-3. They still haven’t lost all hope of progressing to the round of 16, but they obviously need to beat Switzerland for that to happen and hope that Brazil put in enough effort to avoid defeat against Cameroon at the Lusail Stadium at the same time.
It’s not very easy to understand what exactly happened when Serbia and Cameroon met on earlier this week, except that a couple of blunders from Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic cost Dragan Stojkovic’s team dearly. The Fiorentina defender first conceded a corner completely unnecessarily, which led to Jean-Charles Castelleto breaking the deadlock in the 29th minute. And after Strahinja Pavlovic equalized in first-half stoppage time, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic turned the game around and Aleksandar Mitrovic strengthened Serbia’s lead, he was caught out of position twice in quick succession, which led to Cameroon drawing back level.
Stojkovic was much criticized after the match for not bringing on Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic to try and find a winner. There have been rumours about some hardly believable reasons for that, but Vlahovic himself has come out and dismissed them completely. Still, it remains to be seen if Vlahovic is given a chance against the Swiss.
Serbia usually plays in a 3-5-2 system with Mitrovic and captain Dusan Tadic paired up in attack, but on this occasion, with the task of going for a win absolutely imperative, Stojkovic might put Tadic in a deeper, attacking midfield role and give the place beside Mitrovic to Vlahovic. If so, Lazio star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will play in the middle of the park with Nemanja Gudelj, flanked by Filip Kostic and Andrija Zivkovic.
There are a few problems at the back the Serbian coach must ponder going into this match. Pavlovic was forced off with an apparent groin problem after scoring against Cameroon, and it remains to be seen if he has recovered. Milenkovic could be dropped after that woeful performance, but it’s not very likely Stojkovic will want to start without both. If Pavlovic is out, Milenkovic likely starts alongside Milos Veljkovic and Stefan Mitrovic.
When these teams met in 2018, two players of Albanian heritage (Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri) scored for Switzerland and each flashed an Albanian nationalist hand symbol towards Serbian supporters in turn, and their provocation arguably overshadowed what was a huge triumph for the country whose shirt they actually wear. The Swiss FA has reportedly forbidden them to do that again under threat of being thrown off the team for good, and they’ve apparently given their word that they would behave this time.
Switzerland beat Cameroon by 1-0 and lost to Brazil by the same scoreline, and those three points have them in second place where they hope to remain after facing Serbia. Murat Yakin’s team are very strong defensively, and given that they only need a point from this game to progress, that firmness at the back will be their greatest weapon as they seek to frustrate their opponents once more.
As with Serbia, there’s no question about the man standing between the posts. Yan Sommer has been one of the best performers for his nation for a while now, and the Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper will surely be a notable figure in this match.
The only potential injury issue Yakin has to worry about is midfielder Noah Okafor, who probably wouldn’t have started anyway. Fabian Schar, rested against Brazil, is set to return to the back line alongside Manuel Akanji, flanked by Silvan Widmer and Ricardo Rodriguez. The defensive setup will see Xhaka form a double pivot ahead of the defence with Remo Freuler.
Yakin has so far managed the minutes of striker Breel Embolo, winger Ruben Vargas and attacking midfielder Djibril Sow, and all three should be ready to start again along with Shaqiri.
Despite the words of Xhaka and Shaqiri about leaving all thought of politics outside the stadium, the game is bound to be loaded with tension and occasional sparks. Shaqiri not so much, but Xhaka will very likely seek to push Serbia’s buttons in any way he can – he tends to do that even without political charge. The Serbs will have their answers to give, and referee Fernando Rappalini from Argentina is sure to have a hard day at the office.
This won’t be a pretty game. There probably won’t be much for the neutrals to enjoy. Chances will come seldom, and a goal for either side is likely to prove enough to get the job done. But the question is, who will score it? The match ending without any is not unlikely either.
Verdict: Total goals under 2.5
Best odds: 4/5
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