SAMARA, Russia — Aleksandar Kolarov scored from a left-footed free kick in the 56th minute and Serbia opened its World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Sunday.
After David Guzman was handed a yellow card, Kolarov curled the ensuing free kick over the wall. Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who plays for Real Madrid, couldn’t reach it.
Serbia, which missed out on the 2014 tournament, had the early advantage in a tough group that includes five-time champion Brazil and Switzerland.
After a scoreless first half, Navas fought off a barrage of challenges to open the second with the boisterous Costa Rican fans cheering him on at Samara Arena.
The final moments of the match were marked by a squabble on the sidelines as Nemanja Matic got into a tussle with a Costa Rican coach. Players from both teams rushed toward the scrum but it was quickly diffused.
The Ticos were the surprise of the last World Cup, sweeping through to the quarterfinals in Brazil before being ousted by the Netherlands on penalties. It was the furthest the small Central American nation had advanced in soccer’s premier tournament.
But there was some uncertainty surrounding the Ticos after a pair of friendly losses heading into the World Cup, including a 4-1 rout by Belgium a week ago.
Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic, who replaced Slavoljub Muslin last year, put together a veteran defence with Kolarov, who plays for Roma, and former Chelsea player Branislav Ivanovic. Also included were Manchester United midfielder Matic, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who had an apparent falling out with Muslin but was brought to Russia by Krstajic.
The opening half between Costa Rica and Serbia was back and forth from the start: Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header missed the target in the opening minute and moments later Marco Urena’s angled shot for Costa Rica was saved in the left corner by Vladimir Stojkovic.
Ivanovic made his record 104th appearance for the national team, surpassing Dejan Stankovic’s mark. The 34-year-old Ivanovic had matched Stankovic’s record last Saturday in a 5-1 friendly win over Bolivia. Stankovic, known as "Deki," played for the national team from 1998-2013, through three different eras: Yugoslavia, Serbia-Montenegro and finally Serbia.
Ivanovic currently plays for Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg, but he’s best known for his time at Chelsea (2008-17).
Costa Rica defender Ronald Matarrita was ruled out of the World Cup earlier this week because of a right hamstring injury. He was replaced on the roster by Kenner Gutierrez.
Costa Rica advanced out of the group stage in Brazil with victories over Uruguay and Italy and a draw with England, but the country’s players insisted in the run-up to Sunday’s game that this team should not be judged on the past.
"There’s always a lot of talk about four years ago, but this is a new World Cup, a new history," Costa Rica defender Giancarlo Gonzales said. "Some of us are repeating, but there are teammates who are playing their first World Cup. We know the eyes of the world are on us."
Costa Rica will next face Brazil on Friday in St. Petersburg, while Serbia plays Switzerland on Friday in Kaliningrad.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Milinkovic-Savic gave Navas a workout in the first half, and while he didn’t score, he is clearly a potent weapon for Serbia.
He challenged Navas in the 27th minute from just outside the box, but Navas fell on the ball. Navas also stopped Milinkovic-Savic’s bicycle kick in front of goal in the 42nd minute, but it was ruled offside.
Currently with Italian club Lazio, rumours have swirled that Manchester United might be interested in the dynamic 23-year-old Milinkovic-Savic.