By Ger McCarthy
An inability to retain possession remains the Republic of Ireland’s Achilles heel under Martin O’Neill. Rather than building on their early one-goal advantage, Ireland lacked the requisite composure or conviction to hold on to the ball and suffered the consequences.
Guilty of constantly giving away possession, Ireland finished the first half with woeful statistics of 38% possession and a paltry 66 completed passes. Add to that little or no combination play, failure to keep their shape and it is little surprise an understrength Serbia were twice able to find the net.
Courage and effort will only take you so far and Ireland are in danger of missing out on Russia 2018 unless they learn how to keep a hold of the ball.
The object of last night’s exercise was to avoid defeat in Ireland’s opening World Cup Group D qualifier on the road to Russia 2018. Mission accomplished but it was far from convincing.
In a format that requires topping your group to guarantee qualification or at worst, finishing second with the exception of the nation with the lowest point tally and entering a two-legged play-off, this was an opportunity lost rather than an away point gained.
Bottom line, the chance to gain an early advantage over Wales and Austria was squandered against an ordinary Serbian side missing Nemanja Vidic and Nemanja Matic.
Another steady effort alongside Glenn Whelan in the heart of Ireland’s midfield coupled with an opportunistic goal means Jeff Hendrick is a nailed-on starter for the remainder of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Hendrick’s deflected effort capped a memorable couple of months for the former Derby County stalwart who earned a deserved transfer to the Premier League on the back of his eye-catching Euro 2016 performances.
Earlier in the week, Roy Keane informed Hendrick that the midfielder needed to up his goal-scoring ratio and the 24-year-old duly obliged with the opening strike at a rain-soaked Rajko Mitic Stadium.
Apart from the suspended Shane Duffy, Ireland’s starting back four of Coleman, Ward, O’Shea and Keogh was as strong a defensive quartet at Martin O’Neill’s disposal for last night’s qualifier.
Granted, Coleman has yet to taste Premier League action this season and O’Shea’s injury woes continue but the ease with which Serbia managed to repeatedly carve open a dithering Irish defence and score two goals are causes for concern.
Difficult away trips to Vienna, Cardiff, Tbilisi and Chisinau await where Ireland’s concentration levels and defending of set pieces require a vast improvement on their Belgrade efforts.
Daryl Murphy’s transfer from Ipswich Town to Newcastle United raised eyebrows in the closing moments of transfer deadline day but the 33-year-old answered his critics with a crucial equaliser in Belgrade.
Murphy picked the best possible moment to open his international account courtesy of a trademark header and will offer Martin O’Neill an alternative attacking outlet in the coming months.