'You can't win all the time'

Serbia clinch World Cup spot but Portugal are confident of prevailing in play-off battles

LISBON • Portugal have played in every single edition of the World Cup Finals since they last failed to qualify in 1998.

But Cristiano Ronaldo's hopes of qualifying for a fifth straight tournament and adding to his tally of seven goals in 17 games will rest on the team's ability to negotiate the play-offs next March.

Serbia clinched an automatic berth for Qatar 2022 at the expense of the hosts after a 90th-minute header by substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was thrown on at half-time, gave them a comeback 2-1 win in their final Group A qualifier on Sunday.

The result lifted the Serbs into top spot on 20 points, three more than second-placed Portugal, who needed only a draw to finish as leaders on goal difference and qualify directly.

Mitrovic beat goalkeeper Rui Patricio with a header at the far post to spark wild celebrations on the visiting bench after Serbia captain Dusan Tadic had cancelled out an early Renato Sanches opener.

Jubilant fans thronged central Belgrade, bringing traffic at the main Republic Square to a halt as they waved Serbian flags and hooted their car horns.

With Portugal captain Ronaldo stifled, they produced little up front and midfielder Joao Palhinha conceded the home side were below par.

"We have to take responsibility because we had a poor game," he told national broadcaster RTP TV.

"We just defended in the second half. Credit to Serbia, they played very well but we had the capacity to be on top.

"Everyone in the dressing room is disappointed but we have to look ahead to the play-offs now because we are more than good enough to be in the World Cup.

"You can't win all the time. Difficulties are part of life and this feeling should give us more strength."

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    Aleksandar Mitrovic is Serbia's all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 69 appearances. His latest strike against Portugal earned his nation a spot in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

While Portugal coach Fernando Santos cut a defiant figure at the full-time whistle, insisting it was "guaranteed" his side would punch their ticket to Qatar, no matter who they face in the play-offs, there were clear signs of friction, with Ronaldo seen remonstrating with his boss after the game.

Midfielder Bernardo Silva was apologetic, saying: "I cannot find a great explanation for this, words fail me... I apologise to the Portuguese (supporters) who watched a game that they should not have watched.

"The plan was to have the ball, we were completely dominated by Serbia. With the quality of our players, this is hardly admissible."

The hosts made a dream start in the second minute after Silva robbed Nemanja Gudelj and fed Sanches, who fired home.

Serbia were unfazed by the setback as Dusan Vlahovic hit the post before Tadic equalised via a deflected strike.

It seemed Portugal would hang on after Mitrovic headed wide a gilt-edged chance five minutes from time but the Fulham striker, his country's all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 69 appearances, delivered at the death.

He said that Serbia's confidence - they are the only unbeaten team in Group A - was vindicated by a bold performance.

"We came here to play football and having been the better side, we earned it all," he told broadcaster Nova TV.

"We are reaping the rewards of hard work and the belief that we would be able to defy the odds and beat Portugal. We are overjoyed, for our country and the people first and foremost."

Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic added: "We deserved to win as the lads showed so much character. This is a massive accomplishment for Serbian football. The team showed maturity and composure under the most intense pressure and I would have said the same thing if it had stayed 1-1 and we got confined to the play-offs."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2021, with the headline ''You can't win all the time''. Subscribe