Of all the people, it had to be them. Suddenly, in the last minute, Xherdan Shaqiri was racing away, Serbs pursuing him but unable to catch him before he slipped the ball under Vladimir Stojkovic. It was the goal that defeated Serbia and put Switzerland in a strong position to progress to the next round, but it was also much more than that. As he turned and screamed, he took his shirt off, flexed his muscles and performed a double-eagle celebration in honour of Albania. Alongside him, Granit Xhaka did the same – for the second time.
Xhaka had scored the equaliser, now Shaqiri had the winner. Two Kosovans, two goalscorers, in a stadium where Russian and Serbian fans had come together to support a team that they did not see as simple opponents. A team who had looked superior in the first half, but were hauled back early in the second, and beaten at the death.
AS IT UNFOLDED: Serbia v Switzerland
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Dusan Tadic cut back on the right and curled in a lovely cross for Aleksandar Mitrovic to leap above Fabian Schär, who bounced off him, and head past Yann Sommer from seven yards. It was only five minutes in, but it hadn’t been their first opportunity – from virtually the same spot, Mitrovic had drawn a sharp save from the goalkeeper a minute before, this time supplied by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – and it wouldn’t be the last either. The same three men were at the heart of everything Serbia did, combining to the right of the attack.
Outside them, Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic occasionally arrived too in an opening 25 minutes in which all Switzerland could aspire to was resistance, with Mitrovic pushing them about. For the Swiss, every ball in was a drama, and there were many of them. Mitrovic controlled one on the chest and sent an overhead kick sailing just past the bar.
Slowly, though, this became a game, Shaqiri involved at last. Blerim Dzemaili couldn’t quite guide Steven Zuber’s pass beyond Stojkovic.
If the goalkeeper reacted swiftly then, five minutes later Dzemaili wasted an opportunity when he chose to hit a cross – and really hit it, too – rather than take on the shot, when Shaqiri left him in a superb position.
Serbia still threatened and it continued to be Tadic, Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Savic who led. They might have had a second just before half-time, too, when Dusko Tosic dived through the air, barely four yards out but failed to reach the corner, which carried through to Nemanja Matic. Standing by the far post, he was unable to react and deflect it over the line. Next, Tadic struck a lovely shot on the bounce that flew just over.
Switzerland needed a goal and they got it soon after the break, when Shaqiri’s blocked shot ran to Xhaka and he thumped it first time from 20 yards, bending the ball hard into the net. Xhaka, whose father was imprisoned and beaten in the former Yugoslavia for campaigning in favour of Kosovan independence and whose brother Taulant plays for the Albanian national team, celebrated by forming that double-eagle. With Shaqiri and Behrami, Switzerland’s other Kosovans, he had been whistled by a crowd where Serbs were supported by Russians, a banner declaring them “brothers”. There were chants too of “Serbia-Russia! Serbia-Russia!”
Serbia came back at Switzerland, led by the same three, Tadic in particular. He delivered a cross from which Mitrovic, hauled to the floor, appealed for a penalty and then sent the ball fizzing across the six-yard box. And yet perhaps the best opportunity came to the substitute Mario Gavranovic. Played through by Shaqiri, he hit the side-netting.
Switzerland accelerated too, the changes having an impact, Shaqiri running at the Serbs. Gavranovic got another superb chance when the other substitute Breel Embolo – who had almost been the beneficiary of a goalkeeping error just before – leaped superbly to head the ball into the area, leaving him in front of goal near the penalty spot. That time, Stojkovic scrambled to save. He could do nothing when Shaqiri ran towards him at the very end.