On a day when England had played and won and qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup, by the time the second set of games was ready to kick-off the day’s sports events were being overshadowed – or at least challenged for prominence – by an extraordinary first round singles match between two little known men at Wimbledon. I’d promised to cover this game though, so conscientious as ever I tore myself away from the tennis with John Isner and Nicolas Mahut locked at 45-45 in the final set. I had thought I might watch with BBC radio coverage for a change, but 5 Live extra were being less dedicated to the World Cup cause and were promising to switch to the football when – or if – the tennis finished.
In fairness the football seemed a bit less exciting, there wasn’t a great deal of incident in the first half, and both sides kept their party tricks under wraps – Australia didn’t have a man sent off and Serbia didn’t concede a penalty for a pointless handball. But for all that it wasn’t a bad game with both sides looking for a win. Serbia looked the more likely, pretty much from the off, having the lion’s share of both possession and chances early on. Krasic ran on to a through ball in the 12th minute, rounded Schwarzer but couldn’t control his shot from the angle that remained to him. Kuzmanovic had a decent chance a few minutes later, skewed across goal from the inside right, and then Chelsea’s Ivanovic made a good run from right-back, collected the ball inside the penalty area and forced Mark Schwarzer into a sharp save at his near post.
Australia ventured forward a few times, their best chance being a header from Tim Cahill – back after suspension following his first match red card – from one of his characteristic leaps above a much taller defender. He couldn’t direct this one on target, and it was only a blip in Serbia’s first half domination. Zigic, Birmingham City’s stupidly tall new signing, had an even better headed chance back at the other end a couple of minutes later, splitting th centre-backs nicely put heading beyond the far post, and then Krasic had the ball in the net but was marginally offside.
0-0 at half time then, as in the other game, but the Serbians had already had enough chances to bury it. I turned the radio up during the interval to find them still commentating on tennis. 53 all I think it was by then.
The second half was every bit as lively – and much more interesting, with some drama now to add to some good play. And now Australia were playing their full part, their opponents apparently having lost some momentum and the game becoming much more even. Around the hour mark we had the first development in the group standings, with news that Germany had taken the lead against Ghana. While a Ghanaian goal would have been even better, this nonetheless spiced things up a bit, as a second German goal now would send Serbia through even without any scoring here. Had they kept playing as they had in the firrst half it wouldn’t have mattered – any Serbian win would have seen them through, but by now Australia were on top. Mark Breschiano twice forced saves from Stojkovic from range – the first was parried for a corner but the second came back into the danger area only for Cahill to be penalised for a foul as he chased it on the follow-up.
It was Cahill who opened the scoring another few minutes later though, and yet again it was from one of those headers that Everton fans have seen so many times. Did well to keep his eye on it too, with a teammate jumping across him, and Stojkovic could only watch it fly inside his right-hand post. Four minutes later it was 2-0, Brett Holman hitting a low 25 yard shot inside the same post, and suddenly it was the Aussies starting to believe the group could be going their way. Goal difference was against them following their opening 4-0 defeat to Germany, but two more goals now – or one more and another for Germany – would see them catch Ghana yet.
But there were more twists still to come, the momentum swung back Serbia’s way and by the end of the game they were the ones back on the verge of qualifcation. It started with them pulling a goal back in the 84th minute. Tosic’s shot from the right didn’t look dangerous, but it bounced awkwardly just as it reached Schwarzer and when he spilled it Marko Pantelic was first to react to tuck it home. All change again then, now they only needed an equaliser – 0-0 or 1-1 wouldn’t have been enough for them but 2-2 would have them just ahead of Ghana on goals scored if there was no change in the other game. And a minute later Pantelic thought he scored again, but was adjudged offside in a fractional decision which I’m sure will have been replayed many times back in the TV studios in Belgrade.
The radio was still on in the background, and just about now, with four minutes left, they finally switched the the football commentary – the tennis still apparently unfinished but abandoned for the day at 59 all. So they were there in time for the other big moment of controversy in the last minute of normal time when Serbia had a penalty claim waved away. Defending a corner, Cahill failed to get his head on the ball, only to find it headed onto the back of his raised arm with him facing the other way. Again, it was a very tight decision, the arm was certainly high but I’m not sure I’d have given it. Maybe Serbia felt all the more aggrieved for having conceded two such penalties themselves, but there was certainly no mistaking what they though of it, both then and after the final whistle a few minutes later when the players as well as manager Raddy Antic surrounded the referee to make their protests.
Ultimately the result was of no use to either side, but it’s Serbia who will fly home with most regrets. Not just because of the late controversy but they’ll really feel that, having beaten Germany, a place in the second round was theirs for the taking tonight, especially on that first half showing. Australia will note that they’ve ended up missing out only on goal difference having lost the first game by such a big margin, and may wonder what might have been if Cahill hadn’t been sent off in that match, but on the other hand they were distinctly fortunate to get three points here tonight. Both sides contributed to a highly entertaining game, and have played their part in a World Cup that’s been a slow burner but is now coming good. When football is like this, there’s no tennis match in the world that can hold a candle to it.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.