It all seemed simple for Serbia after a half of frustration transformed into elation within minutes of injury time.
It didn’t always feel it was going to be that way, early signs being worrying when marksman Aleksandar Mitrović uncharacteristically missed two golden chances in the first 15 minutes which kept a slow-starting Cameroon in the game.
As has been a theme in this World Cup, the side that does not take its chances gets punished, and after a sloppy unforced Serbian error gifted Cameroon a corner, that thought was on everyone’s mind.
It was thus not a shock to see the Indomitable Lions convert their first meaningful chance of the game, a header finding Jean-Charles Castelletto unmarked in the back post who could not possibly miss 29 minutes into the encounter.
A frustrated Dragan Stojkovic would have been getting his halftime team talk ready when defender Strahinja Pavlović’s well-placed header from a set piece got Serbia level in injury time of the first half.
Moments later, Sergej Milinković-Savić’s long shot astonishingly put his country in front heading into the break, beating goalkeeper Devis Epassy in his near post and raising questions about the demotion of regular custodian André Onana, who was dropped for disciplinary reasons heading into the match.
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Serbia’s confidence was palpable after the restart, and the Europeans showed their quality, walking the ball in with Mitrović able to pass the ball into an empty net on the back of a strong team move. After a challenging start to the match, the Eagles flexed their muscle to turn their early misfortune around, and while also possessing a strong historical defensive record, few would have doubted their ability to close out the game with a two-goal lead in hand.
Soon after the goal, two substitutions turned the game on its head. Serbia’s first goalscorer and left center back in a back three, Strahinja Pavlović, succumbed to an injury. Meanwhile for Cameroon, veteran forward Vincent Aboubakar was summoned by coach Rigobert Song to give the opposition something different to worry about in a hopeful attempt to shake up a game that seemed lost.
Without their dependable defender, Serbia’s high line seemed shaky and often missing in action, especially on the left-hand side. Aboubakar took advantage of that fact straight after coming on, beating two players but not being able to convert.
The striker definitely made his presence felt and eight minutes after his introduction he latched onto a long ball, beating Serbia’s backline for pace, to then audaciously chip Vanja Milinković-Savić in goals in a manner suggesting even he thought he was in an illegal position.
Despite the assistant initially ruling out the goal for offside, the VAR gave the goal the green light, to the surprise of even Aboubakar himself, to give Cameroon a slither of hope.
A shellshocked Serbia refused to adjust and was hit on the counter just two minutes later. Aboubakar once again beat Serbia’s high line on the left-hand side, this time the veteran laying the ball off to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting who brought the scores level, Cameroon replicating Serbia’s quickfire double that concluded the first half.
After receiving a dose of its own first-half medicine, Serbia began defending in a more conservative manner but the damage had already been done. With the score drawn at three-all, both sides had become painfully aware of their opposition’s attacking capabilities and chances were at a premium for the rest of the game.
Questions will be asked of Serbian coach Dragan Stojkovic who despite seeking an equaliser left players capable of fireworks in Luka Jović and Dušan Vlahović unused on his bench. Fortunately for the Balkan side, if Switzerland fails to defeat Brazil, qualification remains in their hands by defeating the Rossocrociati in matchday three.
Meanwhile for Cameroon, an inspired effort was unfortunately not enough to remove it from the position of disadvantage, entering its final match against tournament favourites Brazil with only a single point to show for its efforts. Qualification to the Round of 16 now seems extremely unlikely for the African side, a win against Brazil shaping up as a tall task, with Switzerland and Serbia likely to play off for the right to accompany the Seleção out of Group G and into the knockout stage.
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