KALININGRAD, Russia: Switzerland hit back with a thunderous strike by Granit Xhaka and a last-minute breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri to claim a famous 2-1 win over Serbia on Friday in a swashbuckling World Cup Group E match tinged with Balkan rivalry.
The Swiss looked in danger of being over-run when Serbia went ahead with an Aleksandar Mitrovic header after five minutes to the delight of their fervent supporters at the Kaliningrad stadium.
Xhaka silenced the Serbian contingent in the 52nd minute, however, when he rifled home a loose ball in spectacular style from 25 metres before Shaqiri ran onto a through ball and finished with aplomb to win the game at the death.
Xhaka and Shaqiri are among several members of the Swiss squad who are of Kosovar heritage, which added an extra dimension to the match.
Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of its former province Kosovo which broke away 10 years ago.
“It’s clear that emotions were displayed up and I think we all need to steer away from politics and focus on this sport as a beautiful game that brings people together,” Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic told reporters.
There was also controversy in the 65th minute when Mitrovic appeared to be held down as he went for a cross but the referee waved play on and there was no video review.
The result left Brazil, 2-0 winners over Costa Rica, top with four points, ahead of Switzerland on goal difference with Serbia on three.
Serbia must beat Brazil in their final game to qualify without relying on the result of the Swiss game against Costa Rica, who are eliminated after losing their first two games.
“This is football, we did not convert some of our chances,” Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic said. “Whether this was a penalty or not, I will not comment on that.
“We’re in a situation where we need a win against Brazil on and we will focus and do whatever we can to try and win. Nothing is impossible in life.”
Serbia made a flying start and Mitrovic forced Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer into an early save with a close-range header.
Sommer was powerless, however, in the fifth minute when Nemanja Matic won the ball and found Dusan Tadic, whose cross was met with a soaring header from Mitrovic.
With Mitrovic proving a handful for the Swiss defence, Serbia threatened to over-run their opponents and missed another chance when a corner flew across the face of goal and Dusko Tosic just failed to make contact.
Switzerland came right back into the game seven minutes after halftime thanks to Xhaka’s fulminating strike after a rebound fell nicely into his path.
Xhaka was almost upstaged by Shaqiri who clipped the crossbar with a curling, dipping shot from the unlikeliest of angles and the match turned into a pulsating end-to-end affair which was brilliantly settled by Shaqiri.
Switzerland cleared a Serbia attack and a through pass sent the diminutive forward scuttling away before he slotted the ball neatly into the far corner.
“What is important is that we have developed this winning mentality even when we are down,” said Petkovic, whose side have lost only one of their last 24 games.
“We always find a reaction. This is an important characteristic of my team.”