After throwing Group E wide open by taking a point off favorite Brazil, Switzerland now looks to go top of the group Friday when it faces current leader Serbia in what could be a foul-tempered match in Kaliningrad.
Three players on Switzerland’s team hail from Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Of the trio, Xherdan Shaqiri has been the most outspoken regarding pride of his heritage and for much of his career has worn customized boots that have one Swiss flag and one Kosovo flag on each foot.
That has rankled some of the Serbian players, with striker Aleksander Mitrovic wondering aloud why Shaqiri did not play for Kosovo given his affection for his country of origin. While the Swiss players have largely kept to themselves on the subject ahead of this match, Valon Behrami has previous told of fleeing Kosovo with his family as a child and Granit Xhaka’s father was jailed in the 1980s for protesting the Communist government in Belgrade.
On the pitch, Shaqiri supplied the corner that Stephen Zuber finished with a bullet header on 50 minutes to give Switzerland a share of the points with the five-time World Cup champion. Vladimir Petkovic’s strategy of hacking Neymar all over the pitch was successful in frustrating the superstar as he suffered 10 fouls, though it also cost Switzerland three yellow cards in the process.
Serbia, meanwhile, separated itself from Costa Rica on the strength of a stunning 30-yard free kick by Aleksander Kolarov in a 1-0 victory. The Orlovi put forth a solid defensive effort after some early lapses on crosses into the penalty area and Sergej Milinkovic-Sevic played beyond his 23 years and fifth international appearance with a composed effort controlling the midfield.
LAST TIME OUT
Despite being outshot 21-6, Switzerland conceded just four shots on goal and nearly had 50 percent possession against Brazil, showing it can do much more than park the bus. Shaqiri was able to find space on the counter on the right side at times, though his finishing aside from his assist, left much to be desired.
Keeper Yann Sommer had a quietly strong effort, not having a chance to stop Philippe Coutinho’s world-class strike and making key saves late on Neymar and Roberto Firmino to preserve the point. Valon Behrami also turned in a solid effort in central midfield.
Serbia finished with only three shots on target, with Mitrovic guilty of spurning a few solid scoring chances that could have put the match out of reach. Kolarov’s 30-yard left-footed curling shot inside the right post may have been the best free kick goal of the first set of matches, and yes, that includes Cristiano Ronaldo’s effort to pull Portugal level versus Spain.
Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic likely will keep his starting XI from his first match in charge, but he hinted the team may change tactically for this contest. That could also bring Filip Kostic into play for a start after a 20-minute stint versus Costa Rica.
While Behrami has been receiving treatment for an adductor injury, he is expected to partner with Xhaka in central midfield again. If he cannot go, understudy Denis Zakaria likely would be Petkovic’s choice for replacement. One other potential switch Petkovic could make is at top, where Breel Embolo could lead the line at the expense of game one starter Haris Seferovic, who was a forgotten figure against Brazil’s central defense.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic (F)
While he didn’t score, Mitrovic still did a lot of the dirty work a team needs from its target forward and also drew three fouls against Costa Rica. While Switzerland’s central defense pairing of Manuel Akanji and Fabian Schar are solid, Mitrovic has the nous to perhaps goad the youthful Akanji into a mistake that could prove pivotal.
Switzerland – Xherdan Shaqiri (MF)
Everyone knows about Shaqiri’s lethal left foot, yet stopping him from cutting to his left to get on that favored foot still proves troublesome for defenders. He will ask plenty of questions of Kolarov, who will have to play a more two-way game in this contest after bombing forward without consequence against Costa Rica.
Per Ladbrokes, Serbia is favorite at 13-8 odds, while the odds for both Switzerland and the match ending in a draw are 19-10. Mitrovic is the top option for first goal-scorer at 9-2 odds, with Serbian sub Aleksandar Prijovic the second choice at 5-1. Seferovic is the top option for the Swiss with an 11-2 return.
Given the potential bad blood between the sides, it is not surprising FIFA picked Germany’s Felix Brych to oversee this match. Brych oversaw the 2017 Champions League final and has not been shy about showing a yellow card to maintain control of a contest.
Serbia has history at stake as a win would mark its first trek to the knockout round as an independent nation. The Orlovi also have a strong track record versus Switzerland, losing just twice in 13 matches. They are not above winning 1-0; their last four World Cup victories have come by that scoreline.
Die Nati are not facing a must-win situation, but a loss virtually eliminates them since Brazil is expected to regroup against Costa Rica. They should be able to not only go forward in possession, but sustain possession without being turned over as much as Brazil did in their opening match.
This will be a cagey match and most likely a chippy match with some crunching tackles. Milinkovic-Sevic could be the difference maker in midfield, and look for Mitrovic to finish this time and put Serbia through to the knockout round with a hard-fought 1-0 win.
Serbia completes group play versus Brazil on Wednesday in Moscow, while Switzerland finishes its group play slate with Costa Rica the same day in Nizhny Novogorod.