Serbia are through to face tournament surprise packages Mali in the FIFA U-20 World Cup semi-finals after triumphing over USA in a tense penalty shootout. The spot-kick drama followed 120 minutes of goalless and largely forgettable football, in which the Europeans were undoubtedly the better side.
This was certainly not a classic quarter-final by any standards, and the rain and swirling wind did little to help. But most of what little enterprising, attacking football there was came from the Serbians, who dominated large swathes of this tense and scrappy match.
The lively Mijat Gacinovic was the Europeans' most potent attacking threat in the first half and his mazy, jinking runs twice set up opportunities for others. First Sergei Milinkovic wasted the No10's hard work by blazing high over the bar from 20 yards and then left-back Nemanja Antonov attempted an ambitious effort from the angle of the box that required an alert tip-over from Zack Steffen.
USA offered little in the first half but did create one excellent chance when Thomas Thompson turned smartly on a cross from Paul Arriola only to slice a right-foot shot just wide of the post from ten yards. But there was little else for the American fans to cheer. Amid worsening weather, Serbia re-established their grip on proceedings in the second period and created a series of decent goalscoring opportunities.
Sasa Zdjelar was the first to threaten, firing narrowly and powerfully wide from 30 yards, while Andrija Zivkovic came closer still with a left-foot volley that skidded a foot or so off target. Velijko Paunovic's side also found themselves up against an inspired keeper in Zack Steffen, who thwarted them on several occasions, most notably in diving low to his right to agilely tip away a curling left-foot free-kick from Andrija Zivkovic. The impressive Steffen was at it again eight minutes from time, leaping high to his left to make another spectacular save from Stanisa Mandic's powerful left-footed shot.
Faced with such an imposing barrier, Serbia could ill afford to pass up gilt-edged chances. Yet that was exactly what they did on two occasions as first extra time and then penalties beckoned. With four minutes of normal time remaining, Milinkovic rose unmarked to meet Andrija Zivkovic's inswinging free-kick six yards from goal, and it seemed certain the net would bulge. But instead of making contact with his head, from which any touch would have sent it in, Milinkovic missed and allowed the ball to hit his shoulder, sending it spinning out for a goal kick.
It that miss was glaring, the one that followed was even worse. Substitute Ivan Saponjic was the guilty party, sliding in and knocking wide of an open goal from all of two yards after Stanisa Mandic had measured an unselfish and inch-perfect pass across the face of goal.
That left penalties to decide the outcome and the shootout certainly made up in drama and excitement what the match had lacked. Justice was also done in the end, with Serbia advancing after a topsy-turvy set of spot-kicks in which misses by Stanisa Mandic, Predrag Rajkovic and Milos Veljkovic - the latter two saved by Steffen - were cancelled out by the failures of Rubio Rubin, Joel Sonora, Cameron Carter-Vickers and John Requejo. Nemanja Maksimovic smashed home the winning penalty and the Serbians will now return to North Harbour Stadium to face Mali in the final four.