Five losses in their previous nine games left Ireland out of the reckoning to reach a first ever tournament, but they threw Serbia’s bid to secure a play-off spot into doubt through a first international goal for Courtney Duffus four minutes into the second half.
A side dominated by their Under-20 World Cup champions was always likely to respond and despite Ireland goalkeeper Liam Bossin saving from the penalty spot, Serbia bagged a brace in three minutes midway through the second half and added a third in the closing stages to kill the tie.
“We matched a top-quality side for an hour, but eventually got caught out by their class,” admitted King afterwards.
“It was only after we went ahead that Serbia began to show what a good side they are, but there were lots of positives for us.”
Corkman Alan Browne had the best of the first-half chances by seeing his backpost header produce a smart save from Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, but they sped ahead courtesy of a mistake by Liverpool midfielder Marko Grujic.
When the full international’s crossfield pass was intercepted by Harry Charsley, he released Duffus through the middle and the Everton man found the bottom corner with a low shot.
Serbia’s pressure yielded a penalty on the hour when Eoghan O’Connell tripped Uros Durdevic, yet the Partizan striker — who scored twice in last month’s 3-2 victory over Ireland in Novi Sad — saw his spot-kick saved smartly by Bossin.
The equaliser did, however, arrive on 64 minutes after substitute Nemanja Mihaijlovic latched onto Andrija Zivkovic’s lofted pass and finished from eight yards.
Three minutes later and the Serbs went 2-1 ahead, as Mijat Gacinovic was on hand to fire in the rebound after Bossin kept out Durdevic’s close-range header.
Not even the introduction of prolific Cork City striker Sean Maguire could conjure an equaliser and, two minutes from the end, Ireland were exposed when Sasa Lukic broke to stroke the ball past Bossin.
L Bossin (RSC Anderlecht); D Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), E O’Connell (Celtic), T Hoban (Blackburn Rovers), K O’Connor (Cork City); A Browne (Preston NE), J Cullen (Bradford City); H Charsley (Everton), J Byrne (Blackburn Rovers), O Shodipo (QPR); C Duffus (Everton).
J Mulraney (Inverness) for Byrne, S Maguire (Cork City) for Duffus (both 72 mins), S Kavanagh (Fulham) for Shodipo (79 mins) SERBIA: V Savic-Milinkovic; M Gajic, D Lazic, M Veljkovic, M Ristic; A Cavric (N Mihaijlovic 59), M Grujic, S Lukic (V Jovanovic 89); A Zivkovic, U Durdevic (O Ozegovic 79), M Gacinovic.
K Levnikov (RUS)