Switzerland's late winner over Serbia throws World Cup's Group E wide open
Three quick thoughts on in Switzerland's 2-1 come-from-behind win over Serbia in World Cup Group E play at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
1. Shaqiri's late winner vs. Serbia throws Group E wide open
Switzerland became the first team to earn a come-from-behind win in this World Cup -- in the tournament's 26th game -- and the impact of Xherdan Shaqiri's late strike has thrown Group E wide open.
Costa Rica, who lost to Brazil earlier on Friday, have been eliminated after back-to-back defeats, but with Brazil and Switzerland on four points and Serbia one further back, it means it's all to play for on matchday 3.
Brazil need only to avoid defeat against Serbia next week to qualify for the round of 16, while their opponents know that a win would see them leapfrog the five-time winners to guarantee qualification. A draw will be enough for Mladen Krstajic's side only if Switzerland lose vs. Costa Rica by two goals.
If Switzerland lose by one goal and Serbia draw, goals scored becomes the tiebreaker; through two games, the Swiss lead 3-2. If the two teams end up with identical goal difference and goals scored, Switzerland would go through on the basis of head-to-head, thanks to Shaqiri's goal.
Another interesting consideration is that Group E's opponents in the last 16 -- the F section made up of Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea -- will play their last games before Brazil et al. line up on Wednesday night.
2. Xhaka answers his critics, makes political gesture
Granit Xhaka had been "one of the few disappointments" in the 1-1 draw against Brazil, Swiss broadsheet Tagesanzeiger had felt. In the wake of similar public criticism of his rather anonymous performance after the pre-tournament coverage had him built up as "the boss of the team" (Blick), the Arsenal midfielder had refused to talk to the Swiss media in recent days. But hurt pride was not a factor. The Nati playmaker told Swiss television that he had been advised to keep a low profile and skip the news conference for fear of stoking up ethnic tensions ahead of the game.
Xhaka, whose younger brother Taulant plays for Albania, is one of four Swiss internationals of Albanian heritage. His family, like Shaqiri's, hail from Kosovo, whose independence is not recognised by Serbia for historic reasons. Shaqiri drew attention to his heritage last month by posting a photo of his boots, which feature the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo.
"If there are such Albanian patriots, why don't they play for that country?" Serbian midfielder Luka Milivojevic had asked of the Swiss-Albanians. "They're trying to provoke us, but we won't get dragged down to their level."
Politicians in Switzerland and Serbia had their say, too, in the matter.
Ahead of the grudge match, Serbian media had reported that FIFA had asked the Swiss federation to ban Kosova or "Greater Albania" flags, but the Swiss denied the story as baseless.
The "double-headed eagle" celebration, adopted by Xhaka after his thunderous equaliser and Shaqiri following his decider -- a double-headed eagle graces Albania's national flag -- ensured that nobody could overlook the game's complex political dimension.
3. Serbia employ Croatia blueprint but fail to see it through
For 47 minutes, Serbia had one foot in the last 16, playing a muscular yet intelligent football that was immediately reminiscent of Croatia's 3-0 win over Argentina the night before. The hard-working striker (and goal-scorer) Aleksandar Mitrovic disrupted Switzerland's build-up play, and Nemanja Matic orchestrated the game while protecting the battle-hardened back four.
But the similarities between the two Balkan nations fell by the wayside, along with Serbia's tactical cohesion, when Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic brought on fresh legs to stretch the game. Mario Gavranovic, Josip Drmic and youngster Breel Embolo proved highly effective second-half substitutes who exposed a visibly tiring back line.
Unlike Croatia, who had erected a "cage" for Lionel Messi on the inside-right area of midfield, Serbia's central players had to deal with a much more varied threat. Switzerland's greater energy, combined with Serbia's inability to keep their shape in the latter stages, won the day.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein