Little spark as friendly fails to ignite

A scoreless draw in a pre-season friendly before a small crowd in a largely empty stadium is hardly one for the showreel.

Little spark as friendly fails to ignite

But the clean sheet will certainly mean a lot to Keiren Westwood, the Irish keeper producing a couple of fine saves to ensure the Irish defence in the first game of the post-Shay Given era remained unbreached.

And while the occasion was far from a cure for those Euro blues, at least an experimental Irish line-up did enough to prevent a losing streak from extending to four.

Necessity being the mother of invention, the absence of a significant number of his usual first-choice personnel meant Giovanni Trapattoni was obliged to try something bordering on wild experimentation by his conservative standards.

For James McCarthy, to pick a notable example, this was only his fourth appearance and second start for the Republic, as an unfamiliar partner to Glenn Whelan in the middle of the park.

The Irish absentee list was lengthened still further barely an hour before kick-off when it was announced Shane Long was being withdrawn as a precaution after picking up a calf injury in training.

That was disappointing for all those hoping to see the West Brom striker stake a fresh claim in the absence of Robbie Keane but with uncertainty still surrounding the international future of Ireland’s record-breaking scorer — and his usual partner Kevin Doyle also left behind in sick bay — there was still a novel aspect to the forward partnership of Jon Walters and Simon Cox, adding to the overriding sense this low-key and otherwise untimely pre-season friendly could offer a glimpse into Ireland’s long-term future.

Serbian coach Sinisa Mihjlovic had even more immediate targets in mind, viewing this game against the Republic as the ideal dress rehearsal for his team’s opening World Cup qualifiers, away to Scotland and then home to Wales. Familiar names from the Premiership in his starting line-up included captain Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea and Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov, but their manager’s eagerness was manifestly not shared by the Serbian public, with only a meagre attendance — among them a small but noisy bunch of Irish fans — scattered throughout the vast bowl of the stadium they call the Marakana as the teams kicked off.

For Ireland, Aiden McGeady, Glenn Whelan and skipper for the night John O’Shea were the only members of the Irish starting XI to have started at the European Championships in Poland but, encouragingly, there was no repeat of the early concession of a goal as the new-look Irish, with a new-look formation, made a positive start.

In a 4-1-4-1 set-up, the big surprise was that, at least for the first half an hour, James McClean was played through the middle, with Simon Cox wide right, Glenn Whelan screening the back four and Jon Walters as the target man upfront.

Tucking in, Cox was inventive on the ball, putting in Walters for an early angled effort that was blocked at the expense of a corner.

At the other end, after a couple of nervy moments with the ball at his feet, Westwood did well to adjust and make a save after a shot by Kolarov took a deflection. The Serbians had plenty of pace about them going forward but lacked penetration and, whey they did threaten to get a sight on goal, John O’Shea and Darren O’Dea stood firm

In the 27th minute Glenn Whelan, becoming more of an influence on the game, tried an audacious long-ranger from the edge of the centre-circle which had Stojkovic desperately back-pedalling to make the save and then, from the resultant corner, the Stoke man forced the ‘keeper into more diving action with a well-struck half-volley on the turn.

On the hour mark, Trapattoni made a signature substitution, Paul Green coming on for Whelan, the Stoke man having put in a good shift with only two days to go to the Premier League kick-off.

Ireland gradually got back into what was, in truth, a fairly listless game, a terrific bit of ball-winning and then a fine pass from McCarthy – who was having a better second half — setting up McGeady for a shot which was smothered by the ‘keeper.

But, with the action mostly at the other end, Westwood produced a truly outstanding save — one worthy of Given in his prime — when diving to his left to turn away one-handed a curving low free-kick from just outside the area by Zdravko Kuzmanovic.

That was enough to ensure Ireland ended up with a share of the spoils as, with 10 minutes remaining, Seamus Coleman and Joey O’Brien entered the fray, the latter making his first appearance in an Irish shirt since the home draw with Cyprus which marked the end of the Steve Staunton reign.

There might not have been a great deal to write home about in this scoreless draw but at least a couple of these Irish players will be hoping they can look back on it as the modest enough start of something new.

SERBIA: Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Bisevac, Nastasic, Kolarov, Mijailovic, Kuzmanovic, Ignjovski, Tadic, Tosic, Lekic.

Subs for Serbia: Nikola Maksimovic for Milan Bisevac (45) Lazar Marokovic for Dejan Lekic (45) Filip Duricic for Dusan Tadic (63) Milos Ninkovic for Srdan Mijailovic (63) Nemanja Tomic for Zoran Tosic (81) Duasn Basta for Zradko Kuzmanovic (81)

REP OF IRELAND: Westwood, McShane, O’Shea, O’Dea, Kelly, McGeady, McCarthy, Whelan, McClean, Cox, Walters.

Subs for Ireland: Paul Green for Glenn Whelan (60) ,Andy Keogh for James McClean (69), Joey O’ Brien for Jon Walters (79), Seamus Coleman for Aiden McGeady (79).

Referee: Alexabndru Dan Tudor (Romania)

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