SAMARA, Russia (AP) - With a curling free kick that decided the outcome of the match, Aleksandar Kolarov immediately drew some comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Serbia captain's left-footed strike proved to be the difference in a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Sunday at the World Cup. It came two days after Ronaldo scored a similar goal to give Portugal a 3-3 draw with Spain.
"It was an amazing goal," Costa Rica defender Bryan Oviedo said of Kolarov's effort. "Maybe two out 10 balls will go in like that."
Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov celebrates scoring the opening goal during the group E match between Costa Rica and Serbia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Samara Arena in Samara, Russia, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
After Costa Rica midfielder David Guzman was handed a yellow card, Kolarov stepped up and curled his shot over the wall and into the net in the 56th minute. Keylor Navas, the Costa Rica goalkeeper who plays for Real Madrid, stretched but couldn't stop the swerving ball.
It was the third free kick goal so far at the World Cup: Russia midfielder Aleksandr Golovin had one in stoppage time in the 5-0 tournament opener against Saudi Arabia and Ronaldo capped his hat trick against Spain with the other.
"We knew that set pieces were our forte," said Kolarov, who now plays for Roma after a stint with Manchester City. "We practiced them on the training ground. I practiced set pieces, and this was enough for three points."
The victory gave the Serbians the early advantage in a tough Group E, which also includes five-time champion Brazil and Switzerland.
"It's especially important that we have three points in the bag," Kolarov said. "The match against Switzerland is going to be the most difficult one. Of course we want to win. Let's see what the game brings. There's not much time to celebrate. We will celebrate, but up to a point. Not excessively."
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 assistant. Players from both teams rushed toward the scrum but it was quickly diffused. Video replay was also used late in the match to determine if Aleksandar Prijovic should be given a red card. He was given a yellow.
The Ticos were the surprise of the last World Cup, reaching 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 team after a pair of friendly losses heading into the World Cup, including a 4-1 rout by Belgium a week ago.
"The Serbians did their homework very well," Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez said. "We tried to pressure them. And I think it was a tight match. We should have capitalized on our opportunities the same way they did."
Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic, who replaced Slavoljub Muslin last year, put together a veteran defense with Kolarov 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.
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.
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 in Kaliningrad on the same day.
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, rumors have swirled that Manchester United might be interested in the dynamic 23-year-old midfielder.
Ramirez did his best to raise the spirits of the Ticos following the match, but he was also realistic.
"From what I've seen in the locker room, we still believe," the Costa Rica coach said. "We know that it will be hard because we have to face Brazil and Switzerland. But who knows?"