DOHA, Qatar — When Serbia plays Switzerland at the World Cup on Friday, it will be a head-to-head elimination match to get into the knockout rounds.
The European rivals seemed destined for a win-and-advance final group stage match at 974 Stadium ever since the tournament draw in April placed them in Group G with heavily favored Brazil.
“We knew at the beginning of the tournament that the game against Serbia would be the final in this group,” Swiss captain Granit Xhaka said after a 1-0 loss to Brazil on Monday.
That result sent Brazil to the round of 16 even before playing its last game against Cameroon, and left Switzerland in second place likely needing only a draw with Serbia to advance. Not that the Swiss plan on playing for a tie.
“I don’t know a single team in the world that would go on the pitch aiming for a 0-0. That’s really dangerous,” Swiss midfielder Djibril Sow said.
Still, Switzerland have a proven record of managing these situations in modern tournaments, advancing out of the group to the round of 16 at the past two World Cups and in the past two European Championships.
Serbia has not played a World Cup knockout match since becoming an independent nation, and a relative lack of tournament experience — playing at three of the four World Cups since 2010 but no Euros — perhaps showed in Qatar.
Leading Cameroon 3-1 on Monday after dominating the play either side of half-time, the Serbians lost control and conceded back-to-back goals quickly to draw the game.
The five goals Serbia has so far conceded is as many as the rest of the group combined, while Switzerland has let in just Casemiro’s rising shot that was a late winning goal in Brazil’s 1-0 win.
Switzerland could not force Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker into a save, but should have two fit creative threats restored Friday: Xherdan Shaqiri in a playmaker role and Noah Okafor, whose pace and direct play can be used late in games.
Shaqiri and Xhaka were key figures — with their goals and provocative celebrations — when the Swiss won this same fixture 2-1 at the last World Cup. Shaqiri was born in Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense. Xhaka’s parents are originally from Kosovo and they are of Albanian heritage. His brother plays for Albania’s national team.
That was a game in Russia that Serbian fans still remember ruefully for a penalty call not given for an apparent foul by two defenders on forward Aleksandar Mitrović.
Mitrović scored his first goal in Qatar against Cameroon, though a partnership with Dušan Vlahović was not developed.
Serbia coach Dragan Stojković did not call on Vlahović against Cameroon, after the Juventus forward lacked match sharpness from a recent groin injury when coming on late in the opening 2-0 loss against Brazil.
Barring an unlikely big win for Cameroon against Brazil on Friday, Switzerland and Serbia are playing for second place in the standings and a last-16 game next Tuesday against the Group H winner – likely to be Portugal.
That could suit either team. Serbia qualified to come to Qatar by winning in Lisbon to top their qualifying group, while the Swiss and Portuguese traded home wins in June in the UEFA Nations League.
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