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Serbia have got used to doing things the hard way on their road to Qatar. The Eagles came from behind three times on their journey to this World Cup, including a last-gasp, finals-sealing winner against Portugal in Lisbon back in November of last year. Now, after a rollercoaster 3-3 draw with Cameroon, they will have to go to the well again if they are to progress from Group G.
Fancied by many as a dark horse at this tournament, a two-goal second-half lead thrown away here at the Al Janoub Stadium could cost them dear as they look to make it to the last-16 for the first time this century, goals from Strahinja Pavlovic, Sergej Milinkovic Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic cancelled out by a furious Cameroonian comeback.
The Indomitable Lions have life themselves now too, even with Brazil looming, another brilliant display by an African nation in Doha, following so closely in the footsteps of Morocco a day ago, sealing a first World Cup point since 2002.
For Serbia, the deeply emotional clash with political rivals Switzerland in their final game of this stage is now burnished with an added layer of meaning it scarcely needed.
The headlines ahead of this one were all Cameroon’s, first-choice goalkeeper Andre Onana absent from the squad altogether for this one after an apparent training ground row with coach Rigobert Song in the build-up this week.
Serbia, as you would have expect from a side ranked 22 places higher in Fifa’s rankings, started the better with Mitrovic a perpetual menace at the heart of all of it. If an early header over only hinted at his threat, an excellent drag back and curled shot that cannoned off the far post firmly reinforced it.
Serbia’s all-time top scorer then fluffed a golden chance, firing wide from inside 12 yards before Cameroon seized their first opportunity of the contest to lead. Emerging from the early wave of pressure, a corner was flicked on by Nicolas Nkoulou for a waiting Jean-Charles Castelletto to tap-in from a yard at the far post. Dreams of a first World Cup win in five tournaments were suddenly alive, Pierre Kunde, the other and far less headline-worthy change from last time out, robbing the ball in midfield a firing one shot at Vanja Milinkovic-Savic before skewing a second wide.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal gave Serbia breathing space but they couldn’t hold on
Those hopes though, at least initially, were dashed in the space of three stoppage-time minutes to end the first-half. First the equaliser, Pavlovic of Red Bull Salzburg heading in powerfully from a deep Dusan Tadic free-kick, his emotional celebration as the bench emptied around him evidence of just how much it means for this nation to be here. Then the second, just minutes later, Milinkovic Savic passing a composed finish from the edge of the area into the bottom corner to complete the turnaround.
They wouldn’t have to wait long for their third, Mitrovic finally getting the goal is all-round play richly deserved. Filip Kostic marauded down the left before a combination of Milinkovic Savic and Andrija Zivkovic left the Fulham striker with the easiest of tasks to stroke home a 51st goal for his country.
Vincent Aboubakar (centre-right) changed the game with his goal and assist for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Milinkovic Savic thought he had a second only to lob over the bar before Vincent Aboubakar, on from the bench, would turn the game completely on its head by showing him how it’s done.
Springing the most suicidal of high-wire defensive lines, Aboubakar raced clear from halfway, evaded a sliding defender before delicately lifting over the onrushing Milinkovic Savic to score, VAR stepping in to rightly rule him onside after a rogue flag curtailed celebrations. There was to be no curtailing the second ones minutes later, though, Aboubakar again timing his run to perfection before laying a scarcely believable equaliser on a plate for the waiting Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to slam in.
Serbia, visibly rattled by a wild few minutes, regrouped to push for a would-be winner, Mitrovic coming closest but failing to lift over Devis Epassy in added time.
But it wasn’t to be, Cameroon ending an eight-match losing streak on this grandest of stages with a deserved share of the spoils. If Serbia are to stay on it, they will have to do it the hard way again.