Luka Jovic saves Serbia with last-minute header to deny Slovenia historic victory | Euro 2024

After all, Serbia clearly wants to stay. The build-up to this tense, fraught and increasingly watchable encounter was dominated by their threat to pull out of Euro 2024, but no one told Luka Jovic to throw in the towel. They would have faced another disappointment at a major tournament if the substitute had not intervened in the most dramatic way possible, sending the Slovenian players crashing to the ground as they equalized in the final act of the match.

What glorious late chaos, and how unlikely it was that Slovenia could escape in relative comfort in a closing period. As the five minutes of injury time ticked away, a number of Serbian fans decided their best bet for entertainment was to shower Jan Oblak, and any teammates who ventured within range, with bottles. A smoke bomb had recently been set off for good measure when, as referee Istvan Kovacs checked his watch one last time, Serbia charged the box in search of salvation.

A Hail Mary from deep caused a ricochet behind and a corner which Ivan Ilic – with goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic sprinting upfield to provide an extra target – leaned in devilishly. Perhaps Rajkovic’s presence at the near post distracted a previously resolute Slovenian backline, but the delivery was on point and Jovic, standing amid a thicket of bodies, fired an unstoppable header into the far corner of Oblak. There was barely time to restart, the theater only a brief interruption of wild celebratory scenes.

Luka Jovic (No. 8) heads Serbia’s late equalizer in Munich despite attention from the Slovenian defense. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/EPA

“Serbs don’t die so easily,” said their manager, Dragan Stojkovic, who had paced the touchline in frustration at a team whose ideas seemed exhausted. “We are not giving up and we won’t either. We believed to the end, and the reward came for believing.

A win against Denmark would almost certainly bring a top knockout spot in their country’s current form. Slovenia may need three points against England and will need to recover quickly from this blow. They had one foot in the last 16 when Zan Karnicnik, their impressive right-back, latched onto a loose touch from Mijat Gacinovic and launched into a 50-yard drive from his own half. He slipped the ball left to Timi Max Elsnik and continued his run, appearing at the far post to slide in and cap off what was effectively a long-range one-two.

Karnicnik plays for Celje in Slovenia’s low-key league and it was easy to think at the time that, unlike Serbia, his team was significantly greater than the sum of their parts. Matjaz Kek’s side have lost just once in their last 14 games and only a fool would underestimate them from now on. They defended compactly and chose their moments to land a blow, giving everything they had. Rather than weighing in on the outcome, Kek said fortunes would turn on Cologne versus England.

Zan Karnicnik celebrates Slovenia’s first goal with teammate Erik Janza during the Group C match against Serbia at Munich Football Arena. Photograph: Álex Caparros/UEFA/Getty Images

“We showed that we have our place here at the European Championship,” he said. “Football can be cruel but I think karma will do its part for this team. We played a fair match in an atmosphere worthy of the ages.

He was certainly right about the volume of the stands. This match was the match of the day for most neutrals, but two small countries filled one of Europe’s biggest venues and created another high-octane occasion, brimming with importance and emergency.

Of course, as is often the case when Serbia is involved, reservations were made. It took just five and a half minutes for the chorus of demands for control of Kosovo to ring out, and it may not be the last we hear of the torrent of plastic missiles that later followed . The apparent chants from Albanian and Croatian fans that prompted Jovan Surbatovic, their secretary general, to raise the prospect of their withdrawal were entirely reprehensible, but Serbia must also recognize the crimes committed in their name.

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Slovenian players shot dead amid empty beer cups and bottles thrown by supporters. Photography: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Stojkovic asked flat questions about Surbatovic’s comments, which will become irrelevant if UEFA files complaints against Albania and Croatia as planned. He was more keen to concentrate on a game Serbia started slowly, struggling to find pockets for the recalled Dusan Tadic and finding himself exposed on the flanks. Elsnik, the former Derby midfielder, hit a post eight minutes before the break and Serbia were fortunate that Benjamin Sesko’s marks were wrong after the rebound.

This failure had the effect of bringing the procedure to an end. From there it was a lively affair, with Aleksandar Mitrovic twice thwarted by Oblak and hitting the bar shortly after Karnicnik’s goal. Sesko, who left with cramps, also forced Rajkovic into a full stoppage and both contenders ultimately entertained each other en route to fighting another day.

“Our style is very offensive,” Stojkovic said. “I don’t like boring football.” For all its obvious faults, Serbia rarely produces them.

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