The hosts edged a five-goal thriller with the Republic of Ireland in their first game, while Portugal needed a huge stroke of luck to overcome Azerbaijan in midweek.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ongoing troubles at Fulham have clearly not affected his ability on the international stage, as Serbia’s star striker rediscovered his goalscoring touch at the perfect time to help his side to a thrilling 3-2 victory over Ireland on matchday one.
The former Newcastle United man had only been on the pitch for five minutes before scoring a delightful chip past a hapless Mark Travers, and he soon doubled his tally with what proved to be the game-winning header in the 75th minute, with James Collins’s late tap-in unable to inspire Ireland to a dramatic comeback on Serbia’s turf.
An intense battle for the centre-forward spot is now brewing in Serbia’s ranks after Dusan Vlahovic started and scored on the night, with Mitrovic also hopeful of fending off Luka Jovic for the opportunity to start against Portugal – quite an ideal dilemma for Dragan Stojkovic to have as his three strikers bid to prove their prowess in the final third.
Serbia’s goal-laden performance in midweek sees them sit atop the rankings after the first match, although they are only above Portugal on goals scored ahead of a mouthwatering contest, and the two goals they shipped on the night ended a run of three consecutive clean sheets for the hosts across all competitions.
Having failed to qualify for the European Championships once again, another appearance on the world stage is no less than the Serbia faithful desire, but the visit of the reigning continental and Nations League champions is sure to be a true test of their World Cup credentials before next week’s long journey to Baku.
Despite enjoying 67% of the possession and having a whopping 29 shots over the course of 90 minutes, Portugal had to rely on a calamitous defensive error to get the job done against Azerbaijan on Cristiano Ronaldo’s turf in Turin.
Solid throughout the game, Azerbaijan goalkeeper Shahrudin Mahammadaliyev attempted to punch away a cross in the 37th minute, but the shot-stopper’s effort hit the back of captain Maksim Medvedev before trickling into the back of an empty net, and there were no more goals to be had on the night.
It was hardly a morale-boosting performance from the current European champions, but Santos affirmed that the three points was ultimately all that mattered on the night, and not a single season or tournament has gone by where a team has not had to win ugly to seal progress or be crowned champions.
Portugal have now taken the spoils in four of their last five matches across all competitions and kept their sixth clean sheet from eight games at the Juventus Stadium on Wednesday evening – even with inspirational centre-back Pepe failing to make the cut through injury – so that defensive resolve should certainly serve them well against Mitrovic and co in a top-of-the-table clash.
Serbia have never managed to beat Portugal in their six attempts against them – losing three and drawing three against the Iberian nation – and Portugal marched to a 4-2 win over their opponents as recently as September 2019 during European qualification.