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World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

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Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 2-1 Switzerland win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

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One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Kolarov blast guides Serbia past Costa Rica

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Group E opened up on Sunday with a thrilling match in Samara, where Serbia topped Costa Rica, 1-0.

It looked as if Keylor Navas wouldn’t be beat on the day, however, Aleksandar Kolarov had other ideas with his sublime free kick 11 minutes into the second half.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

It took the Serbia goal to really spark life out of the Costa Rica attack, however, the Europeans held strong and remained compact defensively to keep the Ticos off the scoreboard.

Aleksandar Mitrovic nearly gave Serbia a second finish in the final moments of the match, after Sergej Malinkovic-Savic picked out an ideal through ball to his teammate, who couldn’t find a shot on target.

Both sides struggled to find a rhythm in the opening half, despite Serbia’s dictation of pace with their strong midfield.

Mitrovic boasted the lone shot on target for the European nation, when he tested Keylor Navas in the 13th minute, while Los Ticos had a quality chance of their own a minute prior through a Giancarlo Gonzalez header from close range.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Mitrovic was stopped again by Navas in the 50th minute after the Fulham striker found himself one-on-one with the Real Madrid keeper.

The Ticos will return to group action on June 22 against favorites Brazil, while Serbia will meet fellow European side Switzerland the same day.

PL promotion update: Fulham comes from behind to win, pile pressure on Cardiff

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Back and forth we go at the top of the Championship table.

With Wolves already confirmed as the title winners to grab the first of three promotion spots, the second automatic bid is being hotly contested down the stretch.

Cardiff City and Fulham have gone back and forth over the last two weeks, and once again the Whites have piled on the pressure. Fulham stretched its unbeaten streak to a club record 23 games, coming from behind to top basement dwelling Sunderland 2-1 moving them back into second place, two points ahead of Cardiff.

Fulham didn’t look its usual self early on, and Sunderland capitalized to pull ahead in the first half via route one a half-hour in. Sunderland goalkeeper Jason Steele booted a long ball forward that came to 18-year-old birthday boy Joel Asoro who squeaked his effort past Marcus Bettinelli. The goal marked the first time that Fulham had trailed since a 3-1 victory over Barnsley on January 27th.

Sunderland – the last team to beat Fulham in Championship play way back on December 16th – couldn’t hang on as their misery continues. Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon leveled things up just before halftime as Ryan Fredericks scorched one across the face of goal past Steele, and Piazon spiked it in to equalize. Aleksandar Mitrovic then bagged the winner in the 76th minute when he headed home a free-kick for his 12th goal since joining Fulham in January. The only drawback was an early injury to Southampton loanee Matt Targett, who has been spectacular since joining in January as well.

Cardiff City still controls its own destiny down by two points with a game in hand, but the Bluebirds have stumbled of late. They wasted their game in hand last time out, falling to Derby County 3-1 on Tuesday to let Fulham back in the mix. The loss was the third in their last five games for Neil Warnock’s side, and they now take on a Hull City squad that has lost just once in its last six matches, playing to a wild 5-5 draw with Bristol City its last time out.

Fulham’s final match of the regular season comes next Sunday at Birmingham City, while Cardiff City finishes things out at home against Reading.

Players to watch in the final week of the window

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With all due credit to the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saga, which has replaced the Alexis-Mkhitaryan saga as the saga du semaine in the Premier League, there are other players potentially on the move this week.

Here’s who we think you should keep an eye on as January moves to its conclusion.

[ PL PLAYBACK: On trade deals, and more ]

1) The list should arguably start and end with Jonny Evans, in that whether or not he moves could lay out how much else his current and prospective new club will do in the remainder of the window.

Evans is the sort of player — with respect to Papiss Cisse — that every club needs, and also brings the experience of knowing it could be better and worse from his time winning PL titles at Manchester United and, well, not winning them at West Brom and on loan to Sunderland. He’s 30, not old for a center back, and he’ll be worth every penny.

2) Thinking of Andre Schurrle‘s time at Chelsea has us daydreaming about a similar Chelsea outcast turned reborn Bundesliga star in Kevin De Bruyne (though certainly few are betting on the German to become a Ballon d’Or finalist under Alan Pardew, Rafa Benitez, or Mauricio Pochettino) What’s neat about his case is that his loan move from Borussia Dortmund — and the German club’s potential to pay half the wages if not more — would allow a club who wouldn’t normally get a player of his class to dream a bit. Then again, it could be a bit of “Jese with PL experience.”

3) Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s wild nature has caused his status to shrink deep into the recesses of Rafa Benitez’s mind, which is a shame because Newcastle really could use him, and he could be a breakout forward at the World Cup this summer. Maybe West Brom needs to trade Salomon Rondon for “Mitro” straight up so two baffling PL strike cases can get fresh starts. Or maybe…

4 and 5) David Moyes should call up Newcastle United and offer reported Chelsea target Andy Carroll or reported everyone else target Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is a like-for-like swap. Trade deals, after all, are the new norm, yes?