Serbian captain Aleksandar Kolarov stood over the free-kick with a stern look on his face. His side had dominated possession and territory for most of their game against Costa Rica, but they hadn’t turned that advantage into goals. Now, thanks to David Guzmán’s crude challenge on the edge of the area, Serbia’s dead-ball specialist had a chance to change that. From the moment it left his foot the free-kick was destined for the top corner. It was driven with enough height to beat the wall and enough dip to ensure it was on target, and it curved devilishly to evade the desperate dive of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas. It slipped just inside the right goalpost, ensuring the perfect result came from a perfect strike. When the final whistle sounded, Kolarov’s stunning free-kick was all that separated the sides.Embed from Getty Images
Aleksandar Kolarov’s free kick flies past Keylor Navas into the Costa Rican goal. Kolarov’s goal was the difference between the sides at the end of the match.
Both sides had nervous moments early on in the match, but the game soon settled into a clear pattern of Serbian control. Less than 30 seconds had elapsed when Serbia won their first corner, with a speculative long ball from Branislav Ivanović very sloppily handled by the Costa Rican defence. At the other end, Vladimir Stojković was called into action early, first to intercept a dangerous run from Marco Ureña and then to save a Giancarlo González header which could have, had it not been directed straight at the turtle-neck sporting Serbian keeper, been much worse. Another chance came when Guzmán’s cross found González in an even better position, but Serbia escaped as the experienced centre-back put the second chance over the bar. Then the Serbians began to find their feet, and Costa Rica’s threat on the break began to fall away.
For the rest of the first half Serbia were content to retain possession while Los Ticos happily sat back and allowed their solid five-man defence to absorb the pressure. There were chances, most involving young star Sergej Milinković-Savić. He showed the skill and strength on the ball that led Serbia to sack Slavoljub Muslin when he wasn’t getting a game with the national team, and a bicycle kick (alas from an offside position) showed his athleticism. Neither side had troubled the scorers by the end of the first half, as Serbia’s attack was too slow and Costa Rica’s defence too comfortable sitting back for anything to happen.
There was a noticeable change in tempo as the second half commenced. Aleksandar Mitrović, after a quiet first half, had a one-on-one chance against Keylor Navas within a couple of minutes of resumption. The Serbians were probing more aggressively, and for the first time they looked capable of penetrating Costa Rica’s defensive wall. The goal came shortly afterwards, and Serbia seemed to be in complete control. Nothing Costa Rica did from that point on suggested their lead was ever under threat. Navas was called upon to make some more excellent saves, with a slight touch on a dangerous ball across the six-yard box preventing Filip Kostić from bundling it home from close range. Serbia still looked the more likely team to score, even as Costa Rica sought to defend higher up the ground.Embed from Getty Images
Officials attempt to break up a melee sparked by Nemanja Matić’s rough treatment of a Costa Rican assistant. The melee was one of a few late incidents sparked by odd Serbian actions.
Then, with 20 minutes to go, the Serbians stopped pushing, sitting back in defence and copying Los Ticos’ earlier strategy. It worked as Costa Rica didn’t have enough urgency, let alone quality, to break through the determined defensive wall. Their ball movement was comatose, and despite the need to push for an equaliser Óscar Ramírez didn’t sacrifice one of his defenders in pursuit of a goal. By the end of the 90 minutes, Costa Rica were playing as if they were drawing a meaningless late-season game. Serbia, on the other hand, were all business. Nemanja Matić got into a fight with the Costa Rican technical staff in his attempts to delay Costa Rica’s attacking play, and substitute Aleksandar Prijović nearly got himself sent off when he hit Johnny Acosta in the face chasing after an uncontested ball. Then, after a seemingly interminable second half, it was over. It wasn’t pretty, but it was what Serbia needed to kick off their campaign. For Costa Rica, their surrender in the latter moments doesn’t bode well for tougher assignments to come against Brazil and Switzerland, and their inability to score could put an early stopper on their hopes of progression.
Samara – Cosmos Arena
Costa Rica 0
Serbia 1 (Kolarov 56)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa, Acosta, González, Duarte, Calvo; Ruiz, Borges, Guzmán (Colindres 73), Venegas (Bolaños 60); Ureña (Campbell 66).
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Ivanović, Milenković, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević; Tadić (Rukavina 82), Milinković-Savić, Ljajić (Kostić 70); Mitrović (Prijović 90).
1. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Serbia)
Milinković-Savić started slightly slowly, but he improved as the game went on and created plenty of chances for himself and others. His imposing physique and excellent skills allowed him to shield the ball well and his vision allowed him to find teammates in dangerous positions, making him an all-around attacking threat. On another day, he could have easily found the back of the net.
2. Aleksandar Kolarov (Serbia)
Kolarov deserves credit for breaking the deadlock with an unstoppable free-kick, and his goal put the cherry on top of a quality performance. His defensive work at left-back was always solid, and his work on the overlap allowed him to contribute to the attack with dangerous balls drilled into the penalty box.
3. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Navas made plenty of brilliant saves throughout, and was part of the reason Costa Rica hung on to a clean sheet for so long. He denied Mitrović one-on-one shortly after the break, and did well to prevent two dangerous chances for Milinković-Savić (even if both came from an offside position). His inability to save Kolarov’s stunner should not detract from his strong performance.
4. Dušan Tadić (Serbia)
Tadić was in good form on the right wing, showing his skills and putting plenty of pressure on the Costa Rican defence. He put in good crosses and made life difficult for his opponents, and his combinations with Milinković-Savić and Ivanović provided Serbia with a series of good opportunities.
5. Marco Ureña (Costa Rica)
Ureña was Costa Rica’s most dynamic attacker, and his substitution in the 66th minute deprived them of some of the spark they had early in the game. He made plenty of incisive runs and worked well with Bryan Ruiz, and his hard work both pressing and chasing up long balls kept the Serbian defenders honest.