Ireland get it half right but familiar failings return

Republic of Ireland 1 Serbia 2

Ireland get it half right but familiar failings return

In the end, the costly upshot was the first defeat of the Martin O’Neill era, as a failing which has been an unwelcome feature of previous regimes came back to haunt the new man. For here, yet again, was an Irish side surrendering the initiative from a position of strength, after Shane Long had given the home side a dream start with an early goal.

Unhappily, the Hull man’s own failure to add to his tally — he could and should have had a hat-trick — was, in turn, compounded by individual errors and a conspicuous lack of leadership at the back, of which Serbia were only too happy to take advantage.

In his programme notes, O’Neill had repeatedly stressed the need for his team to eliminate the fear factor. “I want them to be going into games feeling they can win the matches — not to be frightened of the opposition. And to get started straight into matches, not giving the opposition more respect than they maybe deserve.”

His thoughts might have been prompted by drawing Germany in the Euro qualifiers, but it was clear his philosophy was meant to apply to every 90 minutes in which his team goes into action.

True to their manager’s word, Ireland were on the front foot from the first blast of the whistle last night and, but for an untimely intervention from Wes Hoolahan — compounded by a poor offside call from the linesman — would have been in front with a fine goal inside two minutes.

Typically, Hoolahan had opened up the play with a ball wide to James McClean and, meeting the latter’s excellent cross at the far post, skipper for the night Glenn Whelan arrowed a shot towards the far corner of the net. Following in, Hoolahan couldn’t resist supplying a helping foot which gave the linesman — wrongly as it turned out — all the encouragement he needed to raise his flag.

Irish disappointment was short-lived, however, Long applying great pressure to first win the ball and then capitalise on a woefully short back pass to lob keeper Vladimir Stojkovic from an angle and give the home side the lead in the eighth minute. Fresh from celebrating his 2013 international Goal of the Year accolade, as the stadium rose in celebration it seemed the perfect answer to the perennial Irish question of who can fill the shooting boots of the absent Robbie Keane.

Unfortunately, two squandered chances later, and the same question was right back on the agenda.

O’Neill’s starting 11 had contained one surprise, with Derby County’s Richard Keogh in from the start in place of John O’Shea. But the idea made sense. As well as the fact that O’Shea had played in an energy-sapping Wembley final on Sunday, O’Neill has already seen the Sunderland man partner Marc Wilson twice under his watch, and if ever there was a time to give Keogh a chance to add to his two senior caps and show what he has to offer, then a March home friendly fitted the bill.

In any case, it wasn’t as if O’Neill was throwing a kid into the lion’s den; despite his mere brace of previous senior appearances, Keogh is already 27 and a skipper at Derby County with over 300 league games under his belt.

And, along with Wilson and the rest of the Irish defence, he had to be alert at various points throughout the opening 30 minutes as Serbia upped the tempo in search of an equaliser, their fluent passing style causing a few moments of panic, with James McCarthy having to head a Branislav Ivanovic effort off the line and, on one more than one occasion, David Forde being called upon to show safe hands.

Unfortunately, at the other end of the pitch, Long failed to show the necessary composure in front of goal in the 29th minute when, after Hoolahan had brilliantly turned defence into attack — following a corner needlessly conceded by Stephen Ward — the striker was unable to beat Stojkovic after racing onto a defence-splitting through ball from the Norwich playmaker.

Hoolahan, indeed, was doing trojan work from back to front for Ireland. For, while the team always posed a threat going forward — especially with the tireless McClean cutting in from the right and willing to shoot on sight — they never looked entirely comfortable about protecting their narrow lead when the visitors were moving the ball around at pace.

And it was again Ward’s failure to clear his lines which saw Dusan Tadic come close to levelling the score just five minutes before the break, only for Forde to react superbly to turn the number 10’s effort over the bar.

If Ireland had made the best possible start to the first half, the precise opposite applied at the start of the second, lack of focus at the back allowing Serbia to waltz through the heart of the defence with almost embarrassing ease, ultimately forcing McCarthy to put through his own goal as he made a despairing last-ditch attempt to prevent the inevitable.

Here now was a new test: to see how Ireland would respond to the setback of conceding the first goal of the O’Neill era. Disappointingly, in the 52nd minute, came a second moment to forget for the man who had scored Ireland’s opening goal.

Hoolahan was again the provider with an exquisite disguised pass but, this time, Long’s attempt to chip the keeper missed the target altogether, leaving the Hull man — and most of the stadium — with head in hands.

As always looked likely, Ireland were made to pay a heavy price for such misses — and also for recurring sloppiness at the back — when, after Seamus Coleman had been robbed in possession by Nemanja Matic on the hour mark, the ball ended up at the feet of Filip Dordevic, who was able to squeeze it under Forde from close range for a very soft goal.

That was the signal for O’Neill to begin emptying his bench, new arrival Anthony Pilkington quickly testing Stojkovic with a low drive which the keeper comfortably held. But it was Serbia who really began to boss possession now and the visitors should have extended their lead in the 71st minute when substitute Zoran Tosic could only poke the ball almost timidly at Forde from in front of goal.

It was, in truth, a long final 20 minutes for Ireland — who never even looked like threatening a grandstand finish — and also for an attendance of 37,595 which had thinned out considerably by the time the excellent Forde had to pull off one last top-class save before the final whistle brought a night of high promise and crashing anti-climax to a close.

Early days still, of course, but while there were positives to be taken from last night’s game, it looks like O’Neill will need all the time he and Roy Keane can get on the training pitch to try to put things right before the serious business begins for Ireland in September.

Subs for Ireland: D Meyler 5 for McCarthy (61); A Pilkington 5 for Hoolahan (61); J Walters 4 for Long (73); D Murphy 4 for McGeady (73); S Quinn 4 for Whelan (80).

Subs for Serbia: Z Tosic 5 for Basta (59); M Sulejmani 4 for Markovic (76); S Scepovic for Dordevic (87); N Gudelj 2 for Rukavina (89).

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