DOHA, Qatar (AP) — When Serbia plays Switzerland at the World Cup on Friday, it will be a head-to-head elimination match to get into the knockout round.
The European rivals will meet at Stadium 974 looking to advance alongside Group G leader Brazil.
Serbia coach Dragan Stojković said Thursday “in April we knew Brazil would be in a different dimension” and the other teams were playing for second place.
“The prediction brought us to this point and there was no other way,” Stojković said through a translator.
Brazil’s 1-0 win over Switzerland on Monday, days after beating Serbia 2-0, sent the five-time world champions to the round of 16 even before playing its last game against Cameroon.
That left Switzerland in second place and likely needing only a draw with Serbia to advance. Not that the Swiss plan on settling for less than a victory.
“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,” Switzerland 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 European Championships — perhaps showed in Qatar.
Leading Cameroon 3-1 on Monday, the Serbians lost control and conceded back-to-back second-half goals quickly to draw the game.
Stojković said his team made “silly mistakes” in that game but added criticism of his players back home was disrespectful to Cameroon.
“It cannot be seen as a tragedy,” the coach said. “Nothing is lost for Serbia here. The good thing is we decide our destiny.”
The five goals Serbia has so far conceded is as many as the rest of the group combined, while Switzerland has let in only Casemiro’s rising shot in Brazil’s 1-0 win.
Switzerland didn’t have a shot on Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker, but should have two creative threats on Friday: Xherdan Shaqiri in a playmaker role and Noah Okafor, whose pace and direct play can be used late in games.
Shaqiri and captain Granit Xhaka were key figures — with their goals and provocative celebrations — when the Swiss beat Serbia 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.
Both camps have declined to revisit that tense history this week, with Switzerland coach Murat Yakin on Thursday explaining a decision taken in April to speak only about the game ahead.
“We are ready and mature enough to just play soccer and ignore everything else,” said Yakin, who took charge of the Swiss team only last year.
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 has not developed.
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 Tuesday against the Group H winner — possibly Portugal.
That could suit either team. Serbia qualified for the tournament in Qatar by winning in Lisbon to top its qualifying group, while the Swiss and Portuguese traded home wins in June in the UEFA Nations League.
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