Kaliningrad. An ancient Russian city tucked away between Poland and Lithuania. A city that few will have ever heard of and a city that many will forget about once the impressive Kaliningrad Stadium has hosted it’s final game on June 28th. For fans of Switzerland and Serbia, however, it is unlikely that this place will ever be forgotten. It may have been an unusual choice for one of the eleven host cities of Russia’s World Cup but it has provided the setting for perhaps the defining moment for both nations in Group E. It is a place that will bring back happy memories for the Swiss and a place that may have all but extinguished Serbian hopes of the last sixteen.
Kaliningrad really is cut off from the rest in Russia.
The rain lashed down for much of the day on Oktyabrsky Island but when it came to game time, the rain ceased. The unpredictable weather just as unpredictable as the game itself. Two evenly-matched sides purring from two tremendous results on opening day. The Serbs had kicked off with a hard-fought win over Costa Rica while the Swiss upset the odds to nick a point from Brazil. A win for Serbia and progress was assured while Switzerland simply couldn’t afford to lose but victory would keep their destiny in their own hands in Nizhny Novgorod on June 27th.
There were numerous stars on show. Aleksandar Mitrovic is fresh off of a play-off winning season with Fulham while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a talent with the eyes of Europe directed his way. Switzerland had Manuel Akanji who was only winning his 9th cap in his first-ever World Cup. The 22-year-old signed with Borussia Dortmund in the winter and is already tipped for big things. Breel Embolo has yet to reach true potential but is still touted as one to watch while the well-known names patrolled for their teams as usual. Ivanovic, Kolarov, Behrami, Shaqiri instantly recognizable by name and how they play. Behrami especially after he shackled Neymar five nights previously in Rostov-on-Don.
If the Swiss fans were up for this contest, they were deflated pretty quickly. Switzerland couldn’t have asked for a worse start. Five minutes in and Aleksander Mitrovic, having tested Sommer just seconds earlier, was in no mood to give out any more warnings and powered his header beyond the goalkeeper to send the Kalliningrad Stadium into frenzy. The majority inside this stadium were behind the Serbs and the crowd and the team took control of this game from the get-go. Switzerland struggled and despite having some promising openings, they were second best throughout.
The second half was a different story. Switzerland were dragged back into the contest by Granit Xhaka. He took this game and his team by the scruff of the neck, a powerful shot which launched an already spinning ball into the corner of the net. It gave Switzerland the lift they needed and like two heavyweight boxers, the two slugged away at each other for the remainder of the game and this classic contest wouldn’t have quite been complete without the interference of VAR, or there lack of.
There are many that disagree with the Video Assistant Referee’s but after their opening two games, Switzerland will probably be the first in line to defend it. A dubious goal from Steven Zuber earned a point on Sunday and when Aleksander Mitrovic was wrestled to the ground in the box, the Swiss benefited again as the team back in Moscow opted not to intervene. It incensed the Serbs and left many scratching their heads as to why something so obvious was completely disregarded. It was a mighty big let-off for the Swiss and after being given so many of those by their opponents in the first half too, perhaps there was only one way this game was going to end.
Xherdan Shaqiri, so often the heartbeat of this team, was the man once again. He delivered vs. Poland in Euro 2016 and was the star of the show in the 3-0 win vs. Honduras two years earlier to send Switzerland into the last 16 of that World Cup. He almost created another spectacular goal out of nothing in this game but the winning moment was a lot simpler. A defensive error allowed the 73-times capped Shaqiri to notch his 21st international goal and break Serbian hearts in the process as he knocked it by Vladimir Stojkovic.
It was a massive moment and has given Switzerland the key to the last 16 if they wish to use it. After silencing the Canarinho and clipping the wings of the White Eagles, the Swiss face one final hurdle vs. Los Ticos in five days time. A victory will see them through to their second successive appearance in the last 16 of the World Cup. It means they don’t have to rely on Brazil beating Serbia and it is entirely up to their group of players to ensure they make it.
Costa Rica won’t be easy, there is no doubting that. They almost held Brazil to really make things complicated and were only outdone by a magical free-kick in their opening match.
Switzerland are not there yet. Almost. So close they can touch it but come June 27th in Nizhny Novgorod, they need to finish the job.
Shaq delivered right on time for Switzerland.