IVAN Saponjic scored a dramatic extra-time winner as Serbia beat Mali 2-1 at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium yesterday to set up a FIFA U-20 World Cup final with Brazil.
Not for the first time at New Zealand 2015, the substitute was the Europeans’ hero, with his goal settling an enthralling and evenly-contested match that had earlier been punctuated by strikes from Andrija Zivkovic and Youssouf Kone.
Serbia were returning to the scene of their quarter-final win over USA and, having ended that game on a high, they begun this one the same way. It took just four minutes, in fact, for them to take a deserved early lead, with Andrija Zivkovic the scorer. The lively No11 was allowed time and space to run through on goal and pick his spot with a low left-footed shot into the corner after Souleymane Coulibaly had failed in his attempts to cut out Nemanja Maksimovic’s threaded through pass.
Ahead and on top, Serbia looked to reinforce their advantage and should have gone two in front nine minutes later. But having been caught out for the goal, Coulibaly was able to come to Mali’s rescue, clearing off the line with his keeper stranded after Stanisa Mandic had cut the ball back for Sergei Milinkovic to strike at goal.
The Africans were living dangerously at this stage and on 21 minutes had another near escape. Serbia again cut through their ranks easily, with Andrija Zivkovic and Malin Gajic combining well on the right to set up Stanisa Mandic. But while latter’s low cross found Serbia’s No.9 just five yards out, his touch was too faint and the ball flicked off his right boot and wide off the far post
At this stage, it looked to be only a matter of time before Mali fell further behind. However, as the half wore on, their nerve steadied and they began to create some openings of their own. No-one, though, could have envisaged them levelling matters in the spectacular style they did. The goal came out of nothing, with Youssouf Kone gathering possession in an unthreatening position on the left, over 30 yards from goal, and stunning everyone – not least keeper Predrag Rajkovic – with a ferociously struck left-foot shot that skidded into the bottom-right corner.
That left extra time to settle the outcome, and Saponjic to steal the headlines. The forward had come off the bench to become Serbia’s hero in the last 16 against Hungary and he was their super sub again, scoring the goal that took his team through to a historic final. Zivkovic again played his part with a flighted corner and when Milos Veljkovic rose highest to knock the ball back across goal, Saponjic was on hand to nod the ball home.
Mali rarely looked like battling back thereafter and their cause was further hampered with eight minutes of extra time remaining when goalscorer Kone received a second yellow card. He will now miss the third-place play-off against Senegal, while Serbia can look ahead excitedly to their decisive meeting with Brazil who smashed Senegal 5-0 in the other semi-final tie.