Mitrovic bounces back as Serbia stun Portugal to qualify

Mitrovic bounces back as Serbia stun Portugal to qualify

BELGRADE: Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic hit the lowest point of his international career last November when he missed the decisive penalty of their Euro 2020 playoff final against Scotland in a shootout that sent the Scots through to the finals.

One year later, he emerged as his country’s hero with a 90th-minute goal that gave the Serbians a 2-1 2022 World Cup qualifying win at Portugal on Sunday and a berth in the 32-nation tournament in Qatar.

The 27-year-old Fulham striker, who had also suffered a loss of form at his club during the tough, year-long spell, sparked wild celebrations in Belgrade as fans thronged the Serbian capital’s streets after the game.

Very few pundits would have anticipated such joyous scenes after the Euro 2020 qualifying fiasco, with Serbia only reaching the playoffs through the Nations League after a poor run in the Euro qualifiers.

But Mitrovic, who in the meantime also became his country’s all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 69 appearances, spearheaded Serbia’s charge as he netted eight in as many qualifying games having come on as a halftime substitute against Portugal.

“Payback time for Scotland, with interest,” a delighted Mitrovic told Serbia’s Nova television after silencing a vocal home crowd in Lisbon.

“When you work hard, it’s only a matter of time before you get your reward. We’ve got a great atmosphere, the best I can remember and I’ve been here a long time. I am at a loss of words to describe how I feel.

“The coach (Dragan Stojkovic) had told us that we are capable of producing miracles. When he entered the dressing room after the game, he said ‘You guys are out of your minds’.”

Stojkovic, once a gifted attacking midfielder who reached the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals with the former Yugoslavia, transformed Serbia’s approach after taking over in March three weeks before the opening 3-2 win over Ireland.

He instilled a bolder philosophy based on keeping possession and taking the game to the opposition instead of sitting back and hoping for smash-and-grab results against the run of play.

It paid off throughout the campaign as Serbia finished with six wins and two draws, having dominated against 2016 European champions Portugal with crisp one-touch passing after falling behind in the second minute.

“We have the potential to do so much more,” Stojkovic said after Serbia celebrated their first win against a heavyweight side since their 1-0 victory over Germany at the 2010 World Cup, where they made a group stage exit.

“I keep saying that none of our rivals have wings and hence can’t fly. It’s an even playing field. We always knew the game in Lisbon would be like a cup final and we came out on top.”

Serbia finished top of Group A on 20 points from 10 games, three ahead of Portugal who only needed a draw to clinch an automatic berth in the finals but will now head to the March playoffs. – Reuters