Aleksandar Kolarov’s jaw-dropping free kick from 30 yards in the 56th minute proved to be enough as Serbia defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in the Group F opener of the World Cup between these two teams in Samara.
After Aleksandar Mitrovic drew a foul on David Guzman that earned the Costa Rica defender a yellow card for his effort, Kolarov sized up his attempt, which was wide of the right post. But the AS Roma and Serbia talisman produced a wicked left-footed curling effort that split the middle of the Ticos’ four-man wall and flew inside the right post past a diving Keylor Navas.
While that sprung Costa Rica into urgency, the 2014 quarterfinalist failed to create much in the way of threatening for an equalizer in the final half-hour plus stoppage time. The Ticos also spurned two quality chances in the first 45 minutes, practically ensuring there would be no repeat of their group performance in Brazil, where they surprisingly finished atop a quartet that featured past champions Uruguay, Italy and England.
Serbia finds itself a surprising group leader after the first set of matches since Brazil was pegged back to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland. The Orlovi have not reached the knockout round since 1998, when they were known as Yugoslavia and finished in the bottom 10 of the standings in both 2006 and 2010.
The Ticos started the brighter of the two sides as Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic was called into action early. He pushed out a sharp-angled shot by Marco Urena and then was fortunate Giancarlo Gonzalez put his unmarked header from the aftermath of the ensuing corner right at him in the third minute.
In the 12th minute, Gonzalez was again profligate with a gilt-edged chance, heading David Guzman’s cross well over the bar while standing all alone five yards from goal.
Serbia grew into this match at this point, gathering possession on a more consistent basis but failing to seriously threaten a well-marshaled Costa Rica defense that would have five at the back when its wide backs did not press forward to join the attack.
In the 35th minute, Navas punched out a free kick, and Costa Rica enjoyed a spike in momentum. Francisco Calvo, however, failed to put either of his shots on frame. Sergej Milinkovic-Sevic tried an audacious bicycle kick from 12 yards that Navas stopped, but the linesman had also raised his flag for offsides.
Early in the second half, Serbia created its first clear-cut chance of the game as Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Sevic worked a 1-2 to sent Mitrovic clear, but the Fulham striker could not get any power behind his shot with defender Oscar Duarte right behind him.
Ticos coach Oscar Martinez introduced Christian Bolanos for the final half-hour, and he very nearly made an instant impact with a well-struck free kick into the mixer Dusan Tadic cleared from safety.
Serbia should have seen off the game in the 75th minute, when Mitrovic sent a pass to Milinkovic-Sevic on the right in the penalty area, and the cross went past Navas, only to have Filip Kostic make an asbolute mess of things inside the six-yard area by hitting it with his back foot as it squirted away from goal.
Despite making just his fifth international appearance, the 23-year-old Milinkovic-Sevic looked comfortable pulling the strings throughout the Orlovi’s midfield. The Lazio playmaker sent Mitrovic through on two occasions in the final minutes, but the forward was unable to find a finishing move in a 1-on-1 situation.
Referee Cosmos Arena brandished his yellow card four times as Calvo joined Guzman in the book for Costa Rica while Bransilav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Prijovic were booked in the second half.
Costa Rica will have a challenging task in regrouping as it faces five-time champion Brazil in St. Petersburg on Friday, while Serbia will look to take a huge step towards qualifying for the knockout round later that day in Kaliningrad.