Switzerland and Serbia will battle for Group G’s last spot in the knockout stage on Friday in a rematch of their 2018 World Cup clash where political tensions clouded a closely fought contest. Switzerland, on three points, look well-placed to join Brazil in the last 16. A win over Serbia would guarantee them a spot in the next stage, while a draw would also be enough unless Cameroon pull off an upset win against Brazil, which would mean goal difference would be a determining factor. Serbia have a much tougher route to the knockout stage. They must beat Switzerland by a significant goal margin, and then pray for a very precise outcome from the Cameroon-Brazil game — a win for Cameroon but by a narrow margin so Serbia have a better goal difference than the African side. Yet such permutations will not be the only source of tension when the Swiss and Serbs meet. They have played each other only once, in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. That match remains etched in the memory of fans as one with heavy political undertones.
Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, born in Basel to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo, celebrated his goal against Serbia by forming a double-headed eagle with his hands, an Albanian nationalist symbol that can be found on Albania’s flag. Xherdan Shaqiri – born in Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 – added another Swiss goal and replicated Xhaka’s celebration in the 2-1 group stage win, infuriating the Serbian side and prompting world football governing body FIFA to fine both players for unsporting behaviour. Shaqiri, who did not play in Switzerland’s 0-1 loss to Brazil on Monday due to a muscle strain but is expected to return against Serbia, said in reference to the 2018 match that the Swiss were in Qatar to play football. Xhaka is also a key member of the Swiss team in Qatar. Controversy over Kosovo has already shadowed Serbia at this World Cup, with FIFA opening proceedings against the nation’s football association after a flag which showed Kosovo as part of their country was allegedly hung in the dressing room when they faced Brazil.
The Football Federation of Kosovo, which became a member of European football’s governing body UEFA and FIFA in 2016, decried the “aggressive action” undertaken by Serbia. When Switzerland and Serbia kick off on Friday, watch for goals. But also keep an eye out for the celebrations. Serbia face Switzerland at Stadium 974 in their final Group G game on Friday, with the Eagles knowing that they need to win to stand any chance of progressing to the knockout stages. A point is likely to be enough for second-placed Nati, as long as Cameroon fail to beat Brazil in the other remaining game in the group. Serbia still have a fighting chance of progressing to the knockout stages, but they will be disappointed not to be in a better position heading into the final game. In the opener, the Eagles fell to an expected defeat against Brazil, managing to hold the star-studded side off for quite some time, but a second-half Richarlison brace ensured that they took nothing from the match.
Despite the result, Dragan Stojkovic’s side could still have been in a far better position, had they just beaten Cameroon in their last game, and at one point they looked almost certain victors against the African side. After Jean-Charles Castelletto opened the scoring for the opposition, goals from Strahinja Pavlovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic meant that Serbia went in at the break with a 2-1 lead. Aleksandar Mitrovic added a third shortly after the restart, but two goals in quick succession from the Indomitable Lions mean that nothing but a win is good enough for Serbia, and even that would not grant them progression automatically, as it will come down to goal difference if Cameroon beat Brazil. Switzerland are in a very good position to progress to the knockout stages, courtesy of a 1-0 victory against Cameroon in their first game in Group G. Breel Embolo scored the only goal of the game early on in the second half, securing a vital three points for his national side against the country of his birth.
That remains the only goal that Nati have managed to conjure up in their opening two games, falling to a 1-0 defeat against Brazil in their last match, despite holding them out for the majority of the game. Casemiro struck late to deny Murat Yakin’s side an important point, but they are still in a very strong position at present, only needing to avoid defeat, unless Cameroon beat Brazil. However, Ecuador were in the same position as Switzerland on Tuesday, as they only needed to avoid a defeat against Senegal to secure progression, which should serve as a reminder to Yakin’s players that there is still work to be done. Aleksandar Mitrovic scored his first goal of the tournament against Cameroon, and the talisman is now back to full fitness, ready to lead the line in the Serbia attack. The supporting cast are likely to come in the form of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who is enjoying an impressive season with Lazio, while captain Dusan Tadic should feature on the right flank.
The Eagles will likely line up with a back three consisting of Strahinja Pavlovic, Milos Veljkovic and Nikola Milenkovic, who have been the choices in the previous two matches. As for Switzerland, Noah Okafor is the only injury concern for Murat Yakin, as he currently has a muscle issue, although he was not a guaranteed starter anyway, having featured for fewer than 20 minutes against Cameroon. Considering a point should be enough to secure progression for Nati, the manager may implement the same, more cautious approach he opted for against Brazil, with Granit Xhaka and Remo Freuler sitting in front of the back four. Breel Embolo should be the choice in attack, as the only player to score for Switzerland up to this point, being supported by Djibril Sow through the middle, while Ruben Vargas and a returning Xherdan Shaqiri could support in advanced wide roles.