Portugal denied by Serbia in stoppage time; await World Cup playoff draw

Portugal 1-2 Serbia

It had been coming. After Renato Sanches’ opener following a silly error by the Serbian backline, the visitors took control and left a sold out crowd at the Estádio da Luz in shock as Alexander Mitrovic’s late header dumped Portugal into the nightmare of World Cup qualification playoffs yet again.

Once again, Portugal were second best throughout the match and relied on infrequent counterattacks which never yielded the goal they needed to help achieve the objective of qualification. 

While criticism raged over the performance against Ireland, it was true the squad was imbalanced by several changes in order to protect those at risk of yellow card suspension. Tonight, the squad was thus reinvigorated by the additions of Renato Sanches, João Cancelo, and Nuno Mendes while Bernardo Silva had recovered from injury. Pepe’s red card suspension allowed veteran José Fonte back into the side next to Rúben Dias at the heart of defence. Moutinho was surprisingly favored over Bruno Fernandes and Danilo displaced João Pahlinha in defensive midfield. 

Dream start

Whatever feeling before the match that something had to give was justified within two minutes when Bernardo Silva dispossessed Veljkovic allowing Renato Sanches to steal in and score the opening goal with a belting finish. The inevitable VAR check revealed no foul in the build-up.

Cancelo gave away a free kick minutes later and the ensuing delivery was eventually turned into the back of the net, but the referee sighted a clear foul beforehand. But Serbia were growing into the match already, and Milinkovic-Savic headed over after a decent cross from the left. Vlahovic then struck the upright in the 12th minute with the rebound blazed over as the early fireworks continued. 

Milenkovic then was forced to bring down Diogo Jota 25 yards from goal after a Portugal counterattack. Ronaldo’s effort was just over the bar. Serbia went straight back into possession and began to find space down the right wing behind Nuno Mendes winning several corners. Portugal dealt with these and other crosses from wide areas.

Match reaction: “Awful, inadmissible, I can’t explain it” - Bernardo Silva

But the pressure was too great and Patrício, on his 100th cap for Portugal, made a critical error when he spilled a routine shot from Dusan Tadic over the line for the equalizer in the 33rd minute. Replays showed Portugal’s veteran keeper was wrong-footed by a deflection off Danilo and was forced to correct mid-flight causing him to mishandle the shot.

The hosts were rattled and Serbia maintained control going on a marauding attack which culminated with a shot into the side netting from Kostic. Then Portugal came back again and João Moutinho’s shot was blocked after a great tandem run by first Renato then João Cancelo. Danilo rose highest to meet the ensuing corner but it was well over the bar. 

Serbia had the ball in the net again through Vlahovic but the goal was immediately ruled out for offside. Then Renato Sanches’ cross nearly found its way through to Diogo Jota as the match went end-to-end with the half coming to a close.

Sanches goes close 

Serbia’s top scorer, Alexander Mitrovic, was subbed in to start the second half. Serbia resumed control but it was Portugal with the first clear chance of the half as Renato Sanches burst free on the counter, but rather than have a shot or pass he attempted to improve his angle allowing the defence to catch up and clear the ball which still nearly ended up in the net after a bad deflection. 

But Portugal could not maintain possession and Kostic’s cross was inches away from finding Vlahovic in the 59th minute. Renato Sanches was again involved minutes later when he robbed Serbia of possession then raced forward onto Bernardo’s pass to fire a shot straight at Rajkovic. 

Bernardo, Portugal’s best player in the first half, was removed for Bruno Fernandes while Pahlinha also joined the fray. Nuno Mendes broke up a certain goalscoring chance in the 73rd minute as Serbia began to make changes and lose some control over midfield. But still Serbia looked dangerous though their forays became more infrequent.

Mitrovic glanced a header wide after a cross from the left wing, but slowly the chances dried up and Portugal inched toward the prize of World Cup qualification.

But Alexander Mitrovic, just when it seemed Serbia were finished, scored from a free header at the back post from Tadic’s cross in the 91st minute. Portugal were left with four minutes of stoppage time to level the score. And it was not to be.

Deserved win for Serbia

With the result, Portugal, poor throughout much of qualification, were left to negotiate their ninth playoffs for a major tournament. Surprising though the outcome was, the visitors were good value for their victory. Serbia dominated possession, won 10 corners, outshot the hosts and never allowed Portugal to sustain their own attacking rhythm. Were it not for the calamitous opener, Serbia would have looked relatively comfortable. Their midfield, especially Tadic, was absolutely sensational - providing the energy and strength to support Vlahovic and later Mitrovic, but also the skill and vision to deny passing lanes and recover loose balls.

Diogo Jota was again poor and João Cancelo, in mesmeric form with City, was pinned back for much of the game. Nuno Mendes was similarly overrun especially against Serbia’s five-man midfield in the first half. Portugal’s counterattacks came too rarely and Serbia completely shut off supply to Ronaldo, allowing others such as Jota and Bernardo more room, a risk that paid off handsomely.

Portugal will now enter the semifinals of Path A for qualification to the World Cup in March 2022. 

by Nathan Motz


Portugal XI: Rui Patrício - João Cancelo, Rúben Dias, José Fonte, Nuno Mendes - Renato Sanches (Ruben Neves, 84’), Danilo, João Moutinho (João Pahlinha, 64’) - Bernardo Silva (Bruno Fernandes, 64’), Diogo Jota (João Félix, 84’), Cristiano Ronaldo

Serbia XI: Predrag Rajkovic - Filip Kostic, Strahinja Pavlovic, Milos Veljkovic, Nikola Milenkovic, Andrija Zivkovic - Nemanja Gudelj, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Sasa Lukic - Dusan Tadic, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic



[1-0] - Renato Sanches, 2’

[1-1] - Dusan Tadic, 33’ 

[1-2] - Alexander Mitrovic, 90 +1’