Captain Aleksandar Kolarov lashed home a trademark free-kick in the second half to begin Serbia’s World Cup 2018 campaign with a vital 1-0 win against Costa Rica.
Kolarov, 32, belied any injury doubts from the warm-up when he sent a ferocious set-piece past Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas on 57 minutes. This followed opportunities in an entertaining first half for coveted Lazio centre midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, both ruled offside, plus a fluffed one-on-one from Newcastle United-owned centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic shortly after the interval.
Los Ticos only managed three attempts on target and Bologna centre-back Giancarlo Gonzalez wasted two easy headers. Their odds of repeating 2014’s shock knockout-stage qualification appear slender.
SMS SENDS OUT A MESSAGE
This summer’s enduring transfer saga gained fresh life at Samara Arena.
Emerging Serbia starlet Milinkovic-Savic, labelled “Mr 100 million” by Gazzetta dello Sport after supreme exploits at Lazio in 2017/18, was granted his chance to sparkle on the global stage by head coach Mladen Krstajic. Some turnaround after not being granted a minute’s action in qualifying, a decision of harmful consequence for predecessor Slavoljub Muslin.
This is a player of which much has been staked by club and country.
His employers will demand a nine-figure sum if they are to sell in the coming months – and a stellar spell in Russia will only increase demand. Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United are most frequently linked to his coveted signature.
At national level, Muslin gained Serbia their first entry to any major tournament since 2010. But he was dismissed in October after declining to grant opportunities to the generation that claimed 2015’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
The 23-year-old wonder boy was moved to centre stage by his nation on Sunday, who declined to repeat his productive deployment on the left-hand side of midfield for Lazio that produced an outstanding 12 goals and three assists in 35 Serie A run-outs.
Backed up by commanding Manchester United anchorman Nemanja Matic and Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic, permission to break into long stride was granted.
Milinkovic-Savic responded with a leading three key passes for Serbia, plus a joint high of four aerials and second-most dribbles with four. The only worry would be a pass accuracy of just 65.8 per cent – his nation’s eighth worst among the starters.
The first half saw an impressive take in mid-air, followed by a weak low shot on the stretch at Navas. Just before the interval, a flamboyant bicycle kick was athletically repelled by the goalkeeper.
Both of these incidents were flagged offside. But they left positive impressions on watching scouts, as would his later delicate one-time pass to prolific Fulham loanee Mitrovic that should have produced the breakthrough.
CLOSE CALL FOR COSTA RICA
A granite edge emerges for Costa Rica when the real action begins.
Propitious signs were in short supply for 2014’s surprise package when a pair of warm-up matches against England and Belgium were lost to a combined score of 6-1.
This narrow, but damaging, set back in Russia means that a repeat of their run to top spot ahead of England, Italy and Uruguay in the previous edition is a firm impossibility.
So now is a second run into the quarter-finals. Favourites Brazil are up next on Friday.
But a defence that conceded just eight times during the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying – a record table-topping Mexico only bettered by one – again stood firm. Mitrovic’s poor effort in the 50th minute was the only time Serbia truly got behind them, despite boasting 53 per cent possession.
Experienced heads – this XI was the oldest ever named by the Islanders at the tournament – given fresh faith by boss Oscar Ramirez tried to do their bit.
Los Angeles FC forward Marco Urena flashed one promising effort wide, while Saprissa winger Johan Venegas got into a number of promising positions without delivering. Arsenal-owned Joel Campbell is only 25-years old, but started on the bench after a season of inactivity at Real Betis.
Time is again now closing in on these players.
29-346 - #CostaRica🇨🇷 have named their oldest ever starting XI in a World Cup match (29y 346d), beating their previous record by one day (29y 345d v Ecuador in 2006). Experience https://t.co/vlw8vqLM3l— OptaJavier (@OptaJavier) June 17, 2018
KOLAROV’S RENAISSANCE CONTINUES
A change of scenery has worked wonders for Kolarov.
Last summer’s escape from the sidelines at Manchester City saw him revitalised at Roma. The Eternal City must do something for the rampaging ex-Lazio employee.
At 32-years old, he was unquestionably Serie A’s best left-back. A return of eight assists and three goals from 35 appearances in that competition for the third-placed finishers was an excellent return on their £4.5m (Dh22m) investment.
Throughout his time in and out of the City team, Kolarov remained a key man for his country.
This astonishing free-kick from nearly 30 yards helped justify Krstajic’s decision to strip Zenit Saint Petersburg stalwart Branislav Ivanovic of the captaincy.
Germany kick off the defence of their World Cup title on Sunday against Mexico.
It’s a potential banana-skin tie for the champions, although they will back themselves to secure the three points despite recent indifferent form.
Here are three talking points going into Sunday’s game.
GERMANY MUST BEWARE OF COMPLACENCY
Joachim Low was understandably upset after Germany lost a friendly to Austria in the build-up to this tournament, the last failure in a five-match winless run that ended when they defeated Saudi Arabia in their final pre-World Cup friendly.
He knows what his side are capable of; they breezed through European qualifying, won the Confederations Cup last year handsomely despite fielding an untested squad, and the last time they failed to reach at least the semi-finals of a major tournament was Euro 2004. And, of course, they enter the World Cup as the trophy holders.
But Low must worry if complacency has taken a hold of his squad. Saudi Arabia looked hapless against Russia in the World Cup opener on Thursday, but Germany struggled to break them down, with more or less a first-choice XI.
Perhaps it’s just a case of flipping the switch once the real contest begins, but that’s a dangerous mentality to have. Their loss to a flawed France team at Euro 2016 should have been a warning that that they cannot simply turn up and win, and while a group of Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea holds no demons, Low needs to ensure the winning mentality is back.
MEXICO’S STARS NEED TO SHAKE OFF THE PRESSURE
Mexico departed for the World Cup with boos ringing in their ears after their final pre-tournament friendly at home, against Scotland. Their crime? Not winning by more than the solitary goal.
That’s the level of pressure El Tri face, despite not being one of the fancied sides at the tournament. Realistically, they’re headed for a Round of 16 exit for the seventh straight World Cup – they’re likely to finish second in their group at best, with Germany expected to top, and in all probability that means a matchup with Brazil. The fans want more, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get it in Russia.
Faced with such demanding standards, how do Mexico cope? Merely acquitting themselves well against the world champions may not be enough, even when the most optimistic fans will probably be steeling themselves for a loss, and potentially a heavy one.
Lead striker Chicharito is among those Mexican players who seem to struggle under this pressure. Despite being their all-time leading goalscorer, a return of just three World Cup goals is underwhelming. And if a player who can be a star at Manchester United regularly underperforms for his country, how will a rising star like Hirving Lozano fare?
LOW CAN PLAY IT SAFE WITH OZIL
Mesut Ozil has been declared fit for Germany’s opener, after picking up an injury during their friendly against Austria that kept them out of their final warm-up match last week. But perhaps the smarter option is to leave him on the bench.
Not that they should take Mexico lightly, but the depth in attacking positions that Germany possess means they can ease Ozil back to full fitness. Marco Reus is an excellent backup in the No 10 role, and having him in top form will be a boost for Die Mannschaft even if he does ultimately have to cede his starter status to Ozil.
More importantly, an aggravation to the Arsenal star’s injury will be far more damaging than any effects of leaving him out – again, keeping Germany’s depth in mind. The champions’ second match is against Sweden, the most stubborn defence they will face in the group stages – just the sort of side against which Ozil becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.
Saving him for that game, allowing Reus to find his feet on the biggest stage in world football – he missed Germany’s triumph in 2014 through injury – may serve the side better in the long run.
Hannes Halldorsson was the hero for minnows Iceland during their incredible run at Euro 2016 and he continued these feats when World Cup 2018 got under way.
Portugal and Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was left frustrated in France two years ago by the Randers goalkeeper. This time, it was the turn of Lionel Messi.
Halldorsson pulled off a string of superb stops during Iceland’s World Cup debut, culminating in a second-half penalty save from the Barcelona icon in Argentina’s 1-1 draw at Spartak Stadium.
Halldorsson was the last line of defence for an expertly drilled Iceland.
Head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson made sure his troops defended with two banks of four, cutting out any passing options for five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi when he dropped deep. But even this tight game plan was not impenetrable.
Halldorsson punched away one Messi rocket in the early stages and dove to his right to gratefully palm away the great man’s poor spot-kick later on. His six saves also featured a fine stop from substitute Cristian Pavon.
SHOWING NO FEAR – Staring down the likes of Ronaldo and Messi is not a familiar feeling for Halldorsson. The 34-year-old’s day job sees him employed by Randers, a mid-table outfit from Denmark’s top flight.
But this lack of familiarity with the big time has not meant he’s done himself a disservice when thrust into the limelight. There wasn’t any reticence from Halldorsson, no matter what Messi and Co threw at him.
His handling was superb throughout and not even Sergio Aguero’s unstoppable 19th-minute goal could shake him.
PASSING WAS A PROBLEM – No matter Iceland’s startling progression during this decade, they knew they’d be up against it in spells against the Argentines.
Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason and Everton playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson were likely to be the only true outlets when pressure needed to be relieved.
But this does not excuse a pass-completion of just 39.4 per cent in the Russian capital.
Argentina boasted 78-per-cent possession, which meant Iceland had to be economical with the ball. Aimless punts up the field by Halldorsson will be punished by better opposition.
13 – Since 1966, only Luigi Riva has attempted more shots in a World Cup game (13 vs both Sweden and Israel in 1970) without scoring than Lionel Messi did today against Iceland (since 1966). Shocker.#ARGISL #ARG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/rhnROlfewx— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 16, 2018
Halldorsson comes alive at international level, acting as the symbol of Iceland’s defiance.
His team-mates must have drawn inspiration from his antics in keeping out Messi and refusing to be cowed by Aguero’s unstoppable goal.
Remarkably, he’s faced 21 attempts on goal by Messi and Ronaldo in successive tournaments. The men who’ve held an iron grip on the Ballon d’Or during the past decade have not been able to force a way through.
A script even part-time film director Halldorsson would have struggled to conjure.
RATING – 9/10