he group stage of this World Cup has been full of entertaining drama – and this final clash between Serbia and Switzerland only underlined that.
It was another brilliant, breathless encounter; full of goals, bookings and subplots that made this game such an emotionally-charged affair.
At the end of it all, it was Switzerland who were celebrating, but on another day it could so easily have been Serbia rejoicing at going through into the last-16 alongside Group G winners Brazil.
The game served up five goals, with all of them coming in the space of 28 frantic minutes. After both sides had taken the lead and been pegged back, ultimately it was Remo Freuler who bagged the winning effort shortly after half-time.
That was not nearly half of the drama, though, as tempers flared and 11 cards were shown during a match that is historically not short on tension. In 2018, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri lit the touch paper during a World Cup game by celebrating with an eagle sign after scoring – a reference to the fact Serbia do not recognise Kosovo’s independence.
There was no repeat of that this time. Although Shaqiri did shush the Serbia fans when he scored and Xhaka riled up the substitute’s bench in the second-half by appearing to gesture towards his manhood.
That summed up the bonkers nature of this match, where the tone was set in the first minute as the Swiss had three shots on target blocked.
Moments later, Serbia wing-back Andrija Zivkovic smacked the post with a fierce drive from outside the box and it seemed inevitable the deadlock would be broken, at either end.
Shaqiri was, of course, the man to do the honours, finding the net in the 20th minute. Ricardo Rodriguez’s cross found Djibril Sow and he set the ball to Shaqiri, whose deflected shot found the bottom corner.
Four years ago, Shaqiri caused controversy with his eagle celebration – a reference to the fact Serbia do not recognise Kosovo’s independence – but this time he opted to simply put his finger to his lips.
Not that it quietened the Serbia fans, who jeered and booed Shaqiri as their team stared down the barrel of exiting this World Cup.
Within 15 minutes, though, the game had turned on its head as first Aleksandr Mitrovic and then Dusan Vlahovic found the net. Both were well-taken finishes, with Mitrovic’s a brilliant header and Vlahovic’s a cool pass into the bottom corner.
It underlined the pair’s undeniable quality and perhaps the one regret for Serbia is that this was the first time at this World Cup they’d been able to start the pair, with Vlahovic recovering from a groin injury.
But it was Switzerland’s striker, Breel Embolo, who levelled it up before the break. As had been the case all half, Serbia’s wing-backs were caught high up the pitch and Silvan Widmer had all the time in the world to pick out Embolo with his cross.
You thought half-time would take the sting out of this game, but that was not the case at all. Instead Freuler put the Swiss ahead, finding the net after Ruben Vargas’ deft flick had picked him out.
Embolo should have doubled it 10 minutes later, but he somehow put the ball over the bar from a few yards out. Serbia now knew they needed two goals to go through and with that, desperation set in. Mitrovic threw himself to floor looking for a penalty.
Xhaka then sparked uproar among the Serbia bench as he appeared to cup his manhood and a few players marched onto the pitch, with substitute goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic booked.
That was one of seven Serbia bookings and four for the Swiss, with one of the last of those coming late on as Xhaka clashed with opposing goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic.
It signalled the end of a brilliant, bonkers game.
If the knockout stages are half as good as the groups, the rest of this World Cup promises to be something special.