Weblog: The football punter

Serbia can reach World Cup knockout phase

World Cup Group E
BBC1, 7pm Friday

Serbia are a football-mad country who have struggled to punch their weight since the break up of the old Yugoslavia but they can advance to the World Cup knockout stages for the first time since 1998 by beating Switzerland in Kaliningrad.

Despite beating Costa Rica 1-0 in their opening game, Serbia are under pressure to grab another three points.

Switzerland's surprise 1-1 draw against Brazil has left them well placed in Group E and they might feel another stalemate will suit their needs, even if it leaves them outside the top two with one game left.

The Swiss are banking on beating Costa Rica in their final match and will probably settle for going into that game knowing that Brazil and Serbia are catchable.

Serbia finish off against Brazil and will want to have sealed a top two berth by then.

It all adds up to a tense occasion with the onus on Serbia to do most of the attacking

There was a nervousness about Serbia's play in the opening 45 minutes against Costa Rica which was totally understandable given the struggles the national team have had in the past.

But Aleksandar Kolarov's stunning free-kick released the shackles and there was an outpouring of relief at the final whistle.

The result was a vindication of the methods of manager Mladen Krstajic, who was brought in to replace Slavoljub Muslin after Serbia had come through a tough qualifying group.

One of the main reasons Krstajic was promoted from his assistant coach position was his belief in the next generation of Serbia players, in particular Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who was regularly overlooked by the previous regime.

Milinkovic-Savic started a competitive international game for the first time against Costa Rica and was the best player on the pitch, demonstrating impressive athleticism and technique.

He is also a goal threat, as he showed for Lazio, scoring 12 times in Serie A this season.

Milinkovic-Savic adds another key element to a Serbia side already well served in attack, where Dsuan Tadic offers craft out wide and Aleksandar Mitrovic provides a physical presence at centre-forward.

They look a team who can score plenty of goals and that sets them apart from the Swiss, who rely too heavily on Xherdan Shaqiri for moments of quality.

Switzerland are well organised and demonstrated a set-piece threat when Steven Zuber headed them level from a corner against Brazil.

But Fifa's assessment of them as the sixth best team on the planet looks plain wrong.

Switzerland got a point against Brazil thanks to a combination of solid defending and good fortune. Their luck may be about to run out.


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Match in Focus


Ireland v N Ireland

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Ireland have two clean sheets in nine home games
Expert verdict
This will be a friendly in name only and looks set to conjure up goals in the first Irish derby since 2011. Both sides are out of form and bottom of their Nations League groups but will be motivated to perform under the lights of the Aviva Stadium. The return of Kyle Lafferty should be a big boost for the visitors.