Serbia and Switzerland go into their vital Group E showdown on Friday coming off excellent results.
The Serbs picked up a hard-fought win over Costa Rica in their opener, but Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Brazil was arguably the better result, as they produced a fighting display to claw their way back against the World Cup favourites.
The two sides will be looking to build on the momentum from their opening fixtures, but there are still a few kinks to be ironed out.
Here are three talking points heading into the game.
WILL THE REAL GRANIT XHAKA PLEASE STAND UP?
Playing for the Swiss national team is supposed to bring the best out of Granit Xhaka. Deployed as a No 10, his alleged best position, and thus not required to do the defensive work that seems beyond him at Arsenal anyway, the 25-year-old can supposedly play with freedom.
But he was woeful against Brazil. Defensively, he was typically poor, missing tackles – four of his five attempts were unsuccessful – and letting Brazil’s attackers past him with ease.
He didn’t make up for his defensive frailties with his attacking prowess either, so often the only way he can justify his place in a Swiss or Arsenal XI. His passing lacked incisiveness and he provided no shots, no chances created, no threat at all.
Xhaka needs to figure out who he is as a player. He’s not a midfield anchor – two middling seasons at Arsenal are proof of that. Nor can he really be called a box-to-box midfielder if he’s only reliable in and around one box. And if he’s not even that, what use is he as a No 10?
MILINKOVIC-SAVIC SET TO RUN RIOT
Speaking of Milinkovic-Savic, the young Serb was too much to handle for Costa Rica in the group opener.
Switzerland should provide a tougher test, but in the meantime, the Lazio man, playing his first World Cup, showed exactly why he’s set to become the latest big-money midfield money signing in Europe, wherever he ends up.
While not everything he tried came off – his shooting could have been better – Costa Rica found the 23-year-old unplayable, especially in the second half as they tired.
Three successful dribbles, three key passes, and a constant threat running at the opposition defence. Milinkovic-Savic was a marauding presence in midfield, and in that form even Switzerland’s dogged defence will struggle to stop him.
He’s a greater physical presence than Neymar, as well, so the tactic of fouling him 10 times to limit his influence won’t work. And Xhaka’s flimsiness in midfield is essentially an invitation for the Serb to do as much damage as possible.
Valon Behrami acquitted himself well against Brazil, and he’ll have to put in a performance of a similar level to contain the threat of Serbia’s young tyke. But he may not have the legs to keep up with Milinkovic-Savic over 90 minutes.
SWITZERLAND COULD PLAY FOR A DRAW
Serbia go into this game with a golden opportunity: seal qualification before their game with Brazil. It would have been the dream scenario heading into the group, not needing a result against the World Cup favourites to qualify for the knockout stage. All they need to do is win.
It won’t be easy – Switzerland’s fighting display against Brazil is proof enough of that – but Serbia should be looking to seize the opportunity.
For Switzerland, it’s less a case of must-win and more one of cannot lose. Thanks to their point against Brazil, they know they’ll be in a strong position after this game if they can at least get a draw. They’d have two points in hand heading into a winnable fixture with Costa Rica, knowing that one of Brazil or Serbia is guaranteed to drop points in the final game.
A draw on Friday would mean that a win against Costa Rica would put them on five points. Assuming Brazil also beat Costa Rica on Friday, the only way Switzerland would fail to qualify would be if Tite’s side draw with Serbia and both retain a superior goal difference to the Swiss.
Of course, beating Serbia would be even better, but pragmatism may dictate Switzerland’s gameplan on Friday.
Morocco were the first team to fall out of the World Cup after a Cristiano Ronaldo bullet header consigned them to a second straight 1-0 defeat.
The Portugal superstar moved ahead of Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas to become the highest scoring European in international football with his 85th goal in 152 appearances.
The 33-year-old’s brave header from a fourth-minute corner was enough to secure all three points, although, the Euro 2016 champions were fortunate to survive a Moroccan onslaught with their profligacy either side of the half condemning them to an undeserving defeat.
Here, we examine some of the key takeaways from the clash.
Portugal keep winning, Cristiano Ronaldo continues to score – see the trend here?
Put aside the constant and, let’s face it, tedious debate surrounding the entwined legacy of both Ronaldo and his great rival Lionel Messi for a moment, and just respect the Portuguese’s goalscoring greatness.
His relentless pursuit of breaking every record on the book should be appreciated in equal light to any dazzling dribble or sumptuous strike.
Ronaldo plays every game, every minute and every second with a mission in mind and he always delivers.
His fourth-minute header was balletic and brutal as Morocco centre-back Manuel da Costa was intricately sliced away from his tight marking by a clever dart before Ronaldo finished with precision.
In truth, he could have added to his tally of four goals in two World Cup 2018 games. A swift swivel moments later opened up space on the left but he dragged the finish just wide.
Another opportunity arrived after the break when he spanked a shot from outside the box well over the bar and there were was to be no Spain set-piece repeat as two efforts crashed against the wall.
But within that lies the beauty of Ronaldo. He will always persist to create more, to shoot more and inevitably score more. There is no deviation away from that driven mindset, regardless of the pressure, occasion or minute.
Portugal, outside of goalkeeper Rui Patricio, were poor. The midfield went missing and was dreadfully exposed. The Atlas Lions pounced to every loose ball and dispossessed them with ease.
It was ugly at times, but just like Real Madrid they produced the result which mattered most, and both do so because they have Ronaldo.
ZEAL OF ZIYECH
Messi and Ronaldo correctly dominated the pre-tournament build-up for the casual audience but it’s a real disservice to ignore the undisputed quality which lies with some of the smaller nations.
Hakim Ziyech is one of those talents.
The 25-year-old arrived in Russia fresh from the best season of his career with Ajax, notching an Eredivisie high of 15 assists and plundering a further nine goals.
He’s developed a reputation as one of the most electric forwards in Dutch football and that Ziyech wears the maroon of the Morocco and not Oranje is cause of great frustration for his country of birth.
Not for the neutral, however, with Ziyech able to display his precocious ability against Portugal.
While he bubbled in the disappointing defeat to Iran, it was against a wide-open Seleccao das Quinas, the attacker was brought to the boil, leaving onlookers frothing with a delightful display of courage and flair.
He stepped up for Morocco, was central to their enterprising play – the North Africans had more touches in Portugal’s half than Spain – and showed steel to his cutting-edge play.
There was care in his passing, authority in his dribbles through the middle while his delivery from set-pieces was wicked.
Morocco’s best chance of an equaliser arrived from one of his whipped in left-footed free-kicks as Younes Belhanda connected with a good header which Patricio just about pawed away.
He, too, forced an expert block from Pepe late on after a slick drive into the box. His 87 touches, 14 crosses and four key passes were a game high. Only Ronaldo had more shots and Nordin Amrabat more dribbles.
It’s a shame Morocco and their star man have departed Russia early.
PORTUGAL BLEND IS OFF
Goncalo Guedes was chosen to partner Ronaldo once more despite the drop off from his Valencia performances against Spain and again he struggled.
The 21-year-old was not alone, though.
Bernardo Silva, who at least operated in his familiar position on the right as opposed to Guedes switching centrally having been used on the left last season, was dreadful and deservedly hooked on the hour mark.
Joao Mario replaced Bruno Fernandes on the opposite side in the XI but was just as ineffectual. Fernando Santos is fortunate to have Ronaldo in his ranks but the Portuguese boss has to solve the ineptitude of those around the captain.
Neymar was back in Brazil training on Wednesday, 24 hours after limping out of Tuesday’s session in Sochi with an ankle problem.
The Paris Saint-Germain hero was clutching his right ankle, sparking fears that he had aggravated another injury just weeks after recovering from a fractured foot.
However, the good news for the Samba outfit is that their talisman is fit and ready for action, with Brazil taking on Costa Rica in Group F on Friday in St Petersburg (16:00).
The record five-time World Cup winners were held by Switzerland, 1-1, in their opening match.
— CBF Futebol (@CBF_Futebol) June 20, 2018