Switzerland reached the World Cup knockout phase for the third straight time after prevailing 3-2 over Serbia on Friday to finish runners-up in Group G and set up a last-16 showdown with Portugal.
In a contest that ebbed and flowed at breakneck speed in the first half at Stadium 974, Xherdan Shaqiri put Switzerland ahead but Serbia swiftly scored twice within 10 minutes through Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic to flip the game on its head.
Breel Embolo delivered another twist in an absorbing opening period by pulling Switzerland level just before the break, while Remo Freuler scored three minutes after the restart to restore their one-goal advantage again.
“It was a tough game and we battled back bravely,” said Gregor Kobel, who deputised for Yann Sommer after the first-choice goalkeeper was ruled out due to illness.
“It was my first international match for some time and to have such an elimination game was something I enjoyed as a challenge. It was certainly not the easiest game. At the end, we are very happy to have won this.”
Switzerland had fired warning shots with barely 30 seconds on the clock, as captain Granit Xhaka’s strike was blocked by the Serbian defence before goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic denied both Embolo one-on-one and also Xhaka on the rebound.
Serbia enjoyed a spell of pressure after that early scare, with Nikola Milenkovic heading wide from Dusan Tadic’s corner before Andrija Zivkovic took aim from outside the penalty area and rattled the left post with a powerful effort.
Ricardo Rodriguez’s cross in the 20th minute was cleared and fell to Djibril Sow, who picked out Shaqiri on the right. The midfielder fired home a strike that took a slight deflection off Strahinja Pavlovic on its way into the net.
Kosovo-born Shaqiri had formed the Albanian nationalist symbol of a double-headed eagle with his hands after scoring in Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia when the teams last met at the World Cup in the 2018 group stage.
There were no provocative celebrations this time, however, as Shaqiri chose instead to put his finger to his mouth in front of the jeering Serbian supporters and point to his name on the back of his shirt.
Fulham frontman Mitrovic headed in Tadic’s cross to deservedly draw Serbia level six minutes later. Tadic was involved again and slipped the ball through to Vlahovic, who steered a low shot past goalkeeper Gregor Kobel to complete the Serbian turnaround.
But Embolo slotted home Silvan Widmer’s low cross in the 44th minute and Freuler kept the momentum going by thumping in the fifth goal of the evening, as two wonderfully worked moves from the Swiss attack proved to be Serbia’s undoing.
Midway through the second half, Mitrovic went down too easily after a challenge from Fabian Schaer but his appeals for a penalty were turned down, and the Serbian dugout spilled onto the pitch protesting the referee’s decision.
The two teams squared off in the closing stages and Serbia nearly snatched an equaliser in the final seconds of stoppage time through substitute Nemanja Radonjic but Switzerland held on to set up a meeting with Portugal on Tuesday for a place in the quarter-finals.
Switzerland have now reached the last 16 of every World Cup and European Championship since 2014. They finished second in Group G on goal difference with six points, level with winners Brazil, whose second-string side was stunned 1-0 by Cameroon.
Serbia, who needed a win to give themselves a chance of advancing, finished bottom of the group with only one point. They have never moved past the World Cup group stage since the breakup of Yugoslavia.