Serbia were two goals down at half-time of their World Cup qualifier at home against Portugal, courtesy of a brace from Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, but they came back quickly, with Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic pulling one back mere seconds from the restart and Filip Kostic of Eintracht Frankfurt finishing off a terrific counterattack to set the score back level on the hour-mark.
Having faced Ireland and Portugal, two of the arguably biggest obstacles for their qualification for the main tournament next year, Serbia top Group A, ahead of Portugal merely on goals scored.
It was an exciting match, a mix of much good football, a lot of spirit, and a few controversies thrown into the pot just to make it spicier.
It has been a terrific season for Diogo Jota, aside from the knee injury which kept him out for a long while. He was never a guaranteed starter at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and his situation hasn’t changed since he swapped the Molineux for Anfield last summer. He’s still being used in rotation, but his contribution to the Premier League champions cannot be questioned.
The 24-year-old has so far bagged 10 goals in 21 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool this season, some of them ending up match-winners. He may be still behind Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in the pecking order at the club, but he is the kind of player who benefits from having more established names around. It helps him avoid the attention of opposition defenders frequently, and with his usually very composed finishing, that’s a deadly combination.
Serbia felt that fully in the first half of this game. Less than 11 minutes was enough for him to use these skills to get his team in front as he pealed away from Nikola Milenkovic, anticipating a cross to the far post, which Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva delivered with pin-point accuracy. From that point on, it wasn’t too difficult to beat Marko Dmitrovic in the Serbia goal from a few yards. His second, in the 36th minute, was the result of a similar trick as he breezed unnoticed into the box and got on the end of another cross, this time by Arsenal’s Cedric Soares, to head completely unmarked past Dmitrovic again.
Jota is certainly a great asset for any manager, and his quality and effectiveness fully justifies Liverpool paying what many believed to have been over the odds for his services.
Game of landmarks
Two people reached landmark numbers in this match, one in each camp.
Mitrovic’s goal has now got the powerful striker to the number one spot in history when it comes to scoring goals for either Serbia or former Yugoslavia. He now stands at 39, one more than Stjepan Bobek (Yugoslavia international 1946-56), and being only 26, he’s sure to add significantly to his tally.
Mitrovic has lost his regular place in the starting XI at the Craven Cottage this season. He’s been named in the lineup for only 10 of the 29 Premier League matches Fulham have played so far. Maybe manager Scott Parker want’s a different kind of player leading his line, but Mitrovic always seems extremely motivated when wearing the shirt of his nation.
As for Portugal, it was an important day for manager Fernando Santos. It was his 1000th game in the dugout, at club and international level combined – a remarkable feat. His teams won exactly half of them, drawing 252 times and losing 248. He had surely hoped to celebrate this moment with a victory in Belgrade, but it wasn’t to be.
Sadly, hardly a game goes by these days without many discussing the officiating, rather than football itself. In some cases, to be perfectly honest, the officials bring scrutiny on themselves with questionable calls, but sometimes even mistakes should be understood.
There was no VAR in this match of course, nor the goal-line technology; there is a feeling that both these instruments would have had a part to play in this match, were they in place.
The first moment that raised a few eyebrows came early in the second half when Portugal midfielder Danilo appeared to have blocked a shot with his arm. Several Serbia players raised their own arms and screamed for a penalty, but referee Danny Makkelie wouldn’t hear of it. There was no slow-motion footage afterwards and the game moved on quickly, with later events completely overshadowing the moment.
The second minute of stoppage time was passing when Milenkovic tackled Danilo poorly and got a straight red card for his effort. Again, with no VAR to help, Makkelie wasn’t able to take another look, but had he had the opportunity to do so, he might have changed his mind. Milenkovic was late, it was reckless, but there was no malicious intent in it. He simply couldn’t stop himself in time after realizing he wasn’t going to get the ball. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt Serbia much in this match given its timing, but manager Dragan Stojkovic will not be happy about the Fiorentina defender being suspended for their clash against Azerbaijan in a few days.
But even that moment faded away from the memory of most due to what happened in the very last few seconds of the contest.
Cristiano Ronaldo broke through wide on the right, Dmitrovic came out needlessly, it would appear, and the Juventus star squeezed the ball past him, straight on target. But Stefan Mitrovic slid in and cleared it off the line in time, or at least it was ruled so.
However, Ronaldo was furious and protested strongly with the linesman, prompting the referee to come over and book him for it. His anger then rose even higher; he threw down the captain’s armband, and walked vividly enraged off the pitch and down the tunnel of the Rajko Mitic Stadium.
Santos was angry about the situation as well, and many around the world believe the ball had in fact crossed the line. The footage available, and a large number of screenshots circulating throughout social media, suggest Ronaldo’s anger was justified, though his reaction at the yellow card maybe less so. It seems the ball DID go over the line before Stefan Mitrovic got to it, though there are also angles suggesting it may have been still touching the line.
In any case, it certainly wasn’t easy for the linesman to be sure of it in real time. We’ve seen similar mistakes happen before, even with the use of the goal-line technology. The mistake, if it was that, was an honest one.
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