After a hard-fought point against the tournament favourites Brazil, Switzerland all but secured promotion to the World Cup knockouts by beating Serbia 2-1 in an emotional match in Kaliningrad on Friday night.
Mladen Krstajic’s men took the lead through Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header five minutes into the clash but the Swiss made a great comeback in the second half thanks to Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.
The Arsenal midfielder curled in a wonderful shot from outside the box to level the score eight minutes from the hour mark. The in-demand Stoke City winger Xherdan Shaqiri then broke free of Serbia’s offside trap in the dying minutes of the game to slide the ball beneath Vladimir Stojkovic and claim a huge three points for his team.
The Partizan shot stopper topped the Serbian Twelve rankings with 1,711 points despite conceding twice. That’s more than enough evidence to paint an illustrative portrait of the decline his teammates inexplicably went through after taking the lead early on.
The old skeletons came out of the closet to haunt Serbia, as their mental weakness took centre stage at the most inopportune moment. Having opened the scoring and headed into the match on the front foot, the Serbian Eagles dropped back, lost proper interest in finishing what they had started and allowed Switzerland to take full control of the proceedings.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, although his Twelve numbers will not support this following claim, was arguably the most prominent Serbia player. The Newcastle United flop amassed 1,519 points which puts him in third place behind Vladimir Stojkovic and Dusan Tadic.
However, his determination, courage and a clear desire to change things, as well as standing up to a methodical and organised Switzerland team, makes him my man of the match from the Serbian standpoint.
Mitrovic was a huge presence on the pitch – both in attack and defence – constantly probing and testing the Switzerland players. His fifth-minute goal was Mitrovic’s 13th in his last 15 starts for Serbia, and his 18th for club and country in 26 games in 2018.
Mitrovic was also the subject of an intense debate over VAR inconsistency which sparked plenty of controversy. A blatant penalty was not awarded to the Serbian striker, even though Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schaer both held him inside the penalty area.
?? Aleksandar Mitrovic:
? Wiped Out By 2 ?? Defenders
❌ No Penalty Given
? No VAR Decision
— SPORF (@Sporf) June 22, 2018
Ultimately, in a match echoing with political questions, issues of identity and belonging, it was the Swiss Kosovan heritage that took the final victory, which is likely to inflame the tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
The Swiss goalscorers – internationals of Albanian roots – used an Albanian nationalist symbol to celebrate their goals, locking the thumbs and stretching out fingers in a reference to the double-headed eagle displayed on the Albanian flag.
Unsurprisingly, both Xhaka and Shaqiri dominated the Swiss Twelve standings with 2,733 points and 1,802 points respectively.
Having never shied away from their Kosovan roots, both Xhaka and Shaqiri got an emotional closure and a symbolic finalisation of the scenario which saw them being forced out of their homes before the war and thrown into exile.
And while Shaqiri refused to be further dragged into the politically charged issue which depicts the battle between the Serbian and Albanian eagles, Xhaka let emotions take the better of him after the match and took to social media to further fuse tensions, risking a reaction from the world’s governing body.
Switzerland are now well positioned to seal progress into the knockout stage whereas Serbia are holding on to a thin straw, needing a win over Brazil in the final group stage game to remain in the World Cup.