SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - Aleksandar Kolarov produced a moment of captain’s inspiration, curling home a superb free kick as Serbia got their World Cup Group E campaign up and running with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Sunday.
With the Central Americans proving a tough nut to crack, Kolarov stepped up to bury a 25-metre effort from wide on the right, lighting up an otherwise tight game in the southern Russian city of Samara.
Serbia had dominated against a Costa Rica side who rarely threatened after a bright start, but chances were thin on the ground until Kolarov made the breakthrough in the 56th minute.
With Brazil heavy favourites to win the group, which also features Switzerland, the victory delivered a potentially vital three points for Serbia and lifted a weight from coach Mladen Krstajic, in what was his first competitive game.
“Frankly speaking, there was a great deal of pressure on the team, and on me, over the past seven months,” said the Serbia coach, who took the job in October.
Krstajic’s relief was matched in equal measure by the disappointment of Costa Rica boss Oscar Ramirez, whose side are in a precarious position.
“Maybe we have lost a certain margin for qualifying,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, but our intention remains the same. I told the lads in the changing room ‘This isn’t over’.”
If Costa Rica are going to recover, however, they will need to rediscover the defensive organisation and clinical counter-attacks that propelled them to the quarter-finals four years ago.
While a number of their players remain the same from Brazil, they lacked the energy of that side.
Serbia found it hard to break them down, but they rarely looked troubled at the back and barring a late half chance for substitute Joel Campbell, they coasted through the game.
It had not looked like that in the opening minutes.
The match began in furious fashion with Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic having a header scooped off the line and Costa Rica’s Giancarlo Gonzalez failed to convert two headed chances.
But it soon settled into a more predictable pattern.
Serbia bossed the ball as their enterprising midfield, fusing the experience of Manchester United enforcer Nemanja Matic and the raw talent of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, got on top.
The Lazio playmaker was Serbia’s most creative influence, although his blushes were spared by the linesman’s flag when he fluffed a first-half chance after racing through on goal.
That would have been easily forgotten, however, had he converted an outrageous overhead kick moments before the break that forced a brilliant save from Keylor Navas.
The bullish Mitrovic failed to find the net with a good chance early in the second half, but it mattered little, as the deadlock was broken when AS Roma left back Kolarov produced his moment of magic, curling a free kick left-footed over the wall and past the despairing dive of Navas.
There were few chances in the closing stages and although Serbian appeals for a penalty were waved away when Mitrovic went down in the box, their disappointment lasted only until the final whistle.
There were no exuberant celebrations, however, with Kolarov sounding a word of caution.
“It is great to have three points in the bag, but we are not finished ... I don’t want to do the maths yet,” he said.
Reporting by Toby Davis,; Editing by Ed Osmond