SERBIA are sitting pretty at the top of Group E but now face a tough task against Switzerland in Kaliningrad as they bid to secure a place in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the encounter and picks out his best bets.
Serbia v Switzerland | Friday 22nd June 2018, 19:00 | BBC
From the outset, Serbia’s showdown with Switzerland in Kaliningrad on Friday night was always expected to be decisive in the race to reach the knockout stages. With pre-tournament favourites Brazil hogging the Group E betting headlights, these two European nations were fancied to battle it out for second.
Serbia’s success over Costa Rica on Sunday afternoon handed the Balkan boys initial control of the group, but their path towards a two-finish isn’t quite so straightforward following Switzerland’s surprise draw with Brazil. That result has changed the dynamics of the section, making this an intriguing encounter.
To put it simply, Switzerland may look to pick up a precious point here before doing the business against Costa Rica last up. Such a scenario would give Die Nati a five-point tally with possibility of bettering Serbia’s +1 goal difference from their game against Los Ticos.
Serbian backers shouldn’t be too disheartened – 84% of nations to kick-off their campaign with three points have gone on to qualify and the Eagles will be confident they can earn a victory here. However, anything other than maximum points could prove costly with Brazil waiting in the wings last up.
Serbs in Group E command
Serbia entered the competition as the lowest ranked European nation and despite an overdue return to the world stage, optimism in the Balkan state was not particularly high. Indeed, the Serbian FA cancelled an open-top bus parade in Belgrade as part of a send-off because they predicted such a lukewarm reaction.
And after a cautious start to their match with Costa Rica, some supporters were understandable nervous. But Mladen Krstajic's men grew into the game and their blend of a gnarled experienced defence combined with a youthful technically-gifted midfield began to make an impression.
Aleksandar Mitrovic was denied after being sent clear by the impressive Sergej Milinkovic-Savic but captain Aleksandar Kolarov’s spectacular 25-yard free-kick settled matters. It was one of only three shots on-target from the Eagles, although they did produce a dominant second-half display that deserved more.
Krstajic lauded the team spirit post-match, suggesting “there are no clans or cliques in this squad for the first time in a long time. The basics of success are a good atmosphere in a team” and the buoyant atmosphere in camp could easily create positive momentum coming into this contest.
Plucky Switzerland no easy meat
The market tends to agree. Serbia have been backed into favouritism over the past few days – their price crumbling from north of 2/1 to as short as 6/4 in places at the time of writing – possibly as punters begin to realise the permutations involved.
I’m certainly not dismissing their prospects but I do feel Switzerland deserve respect and should be treated with caution. Die Nati held Brazil with an impressive defensive display with the only goal they conceded a wonder-strike from Philippe Coutinho deciding matters.
Vladimir Petkovic’s men had 45% of the ball – underlining their competitive nature in the encounter – and hassled and harassed their more illustrious opposition from the outset. Clear-cut chances were hard to come by and Valon Behrami repeatedly broke up play in the middle.
It was a Swiss performance expertly mapped out by their Bosnian boss. Post-match he remarked, “I hope they will start taking notice of us and taking us seriously. Sometimes if there is a lack of recognition that is a pity because we have played very well” and I tend to agree, to a point.
Die Nati play to the strengths
Switzerland have now lost only once in their last 18 matches since Euro 2016, shipping only nine goals. Further back, it’s one reverse in 23 (W16-D6-L1) and seven defeats in 36 outings. Die Nati play to their strengths in often unappealing encounters but they’re an effective outfit.
Against Brazil, it was a display more intent on thwarting the Selecao rather than pushing forward – striker Haris Seferovic led the line but only had 19 touches in 80 minutes, none of them in the Brazil penalty area – and a similar style wouldn’t be a huge surprise considering the group dynamic.
Petkovic has built a well-drilled and highly capable side although they probably don’t pose enough problems in the final third to be considered in the top bracket. Xherdan Shaqiri still carries the offensive threat almost single-handedly at times and their average of 2.63 goals per-game in qualification against Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra highlighted such concerns.
The betting angle
Nevertheless, I’ve faith in the collective and believe Switzerland possess the nous and experience to pick up the result they crave here. Each of their past four fixtures at major tournaments have finished all-square, while their last five paid out for Under 2.5 Goals backers.
I’m quite keen to take a similar approach and support the draw and Under 2.5 Goals at a decent 23/10 (William Hill). Despite the cushy nature of their qualification path, seven of Switzerland’s 12 matches featured fewer than three goals and a repeat wouldn’t be a huge surprise considering the significance.
Serbia v Switzerland – Draw and Under 2.5 Goals (23/10 William Hill)