Perhaps it was naive to think this encounter, which had rattled along without controversy for more than two-thirds of its time, would pass in silence. Switzerland will face Portugal in the last 16 after defeating a freewheeling but painfully naive Serbia side who briefly looked poised to go through after Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic overhauled Xherdan Shaqiri’s opener. Breel Embolo and Remo Freuler turned things back in their favour, but a night coloured by the context of the Albanian “eagle” celebration deployed by Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka in Kaliningrad four years ago ended stormily. Xhaka was to the fore of more than one flashpoint and there may be consequences, too, for one of the relevant football associations after discriminatory chants were heard in the stands.
It only took 20 minutes for Shaqiri to earn a test of his self restraint. There was no eagle gesture after his first-time shot deflected past Vanja Milinkovic-Savic; instead he contented himself with a finger to the lips, aimed pointedly at the hard-core of Serbia supporters in the nearby corner, before turning around and pointing to the name on his back. It was mildly provocative but, having hitherto been booed whenever in possession, a less incendiary way of making his point.
The goal capped a see-sawing, surreally open start. Within 24 seconds of kick-off Xhaka had received his own chance to show lessons had been learned since 2018, seeing Vanja Milinkovic-Savic recovering to parry his half-volley after blocking from Embolo at close range. Nikola Milenkovic quickly boomed a header wide for Serbia and then, after cleverly cutting inside, their right wing-back Andrija Zivkovic hit a post with the cleanest of 20-yard strikes.
Serbia were committing bodies forward from all angles, the left centre back Strahinja Pavlovic causing brief havoc with one overlapping run. But they were leaving gaping holes behind them and it was into one that Ricardo Rodríguez marauded, with all the time he needed, down the left. His centre was half-clear but helped by Djibril Sow into the path of Shaqiri, who did the rest.
That was never likely to be the end of it. Within six minutes Dusan Tadic had located Mitrovic’s run with a beautifully flighted cross that was met, delicately but emphatically, with a glanced header across Gregor Kobel. The Switzerland keeper had been drafted in upon Yann Sommer’s illness and, to giddy Serbian celebrations, was soon beaten again.
This time a cheap concession in midfield let Tadic, in his most beguiling form, attempt a reverse pass through to Vlahovic. With help from a touch by Freuler, it reached the intended target. The Juventus striker, who had been struggling with injury, showed why he was given his first start of the tournament with a precise low finish across a motionless Kobel.
Pavlovic thudded his chest and geed up the crowd after blocking from Ruben Vargas but it never seemed remotely likely Serbia would be able to succeed through sitting on this lead. They are simply not built that way and the point was reinforced just as it appeared they would teeter through to half-time. Embolo’s second goal of the tournament, converted from inside the six-yard box, was smartly taken but Serbia offered next to no pressure on the ball as play built. Eventually Silvan Widmer crossed precisely from the right, his centre-forward awaiting gleefully, and there was a sense Switzerland would guard their position of strength more jealously this time.
It had been exceptional entertainment, fully occupying the crowd at that point. That initially remained the case after the restart, Switzerland turning the screw within three minutes and silencing the majority. Freuler’s left-footed finish, offered to him by a cute flick from Vargas, was crisp and well constructed but again Serbia’s level of vigour in the challenges was at best halfhearted.
Needing two goals, the wit and invention in Serbia’s earlier play now deserted them. Embolo somehow scooped over from a chance to deepen their woe, although VAR may well have ruled him offside, and their efforts towards a quick recovery amounted to little more than a wayward Tadic shot.
Mitrovic flung himself to the floor in search of the penalty, the dive utterly egregious, and the mood turned dark as players from both sides became involved in a disagreement by the left touchline. Xhaka was involved, appearing to grab his genitals and look toward the Serbia bench. The substitute keeper Predrag Rajkovic, was yellow carded in the ensuing melee and Dragan Stojkovic, the Serbia manager, made a brief incursion on to the playing surface.
Serbia could have done with him in his pomp. Back in the here and now they were cooked, the final stages little more than an exercise in playing out time. A tannoy announcement in the 77th minute reminded the fans to refrain from “discriminatory shouts and gestures”; their precise nature was unclear but Fifa were surely prepared well in advance to be occupied by any fallout from this occasion.
It meant a previously enthralling game ended under a shadow, Xhaka and Milenkovic almost coming to blows in a late pile-on. Eagle or no eagle, though, Switzerland have taken flight. - Guardian