The Irish performance deserved more. Vastly improved on Saturday’s dismal display in Tbilisi, all it really lacked was a clinical finish — it’s the most critical thing of all — of the kind Aleksandar Kolarov provided as he put the Serbs ahead, largely against the run of play, shortly before the hour mark.
We’ve had plenty of ‘nice result, shame about the football’ occasions in Irish football in the past. This was the reverse and, as Martin O’Neill suffered his first competitive defeat as manager in Dublin and the team lost their unbeaten record in this World Cup campaign, it was a chastening reminder that, in the final analysis, it’s the story the scoreboard tells at the end of 90 minutes which really counts.
And even though the visitors had to play out almost the last half hour with ten men after Nikola Maksimovic was red-carded for taking down Daryl Murphy as he bore down on the Serbian goal, the Irish couldn’t find a way to get the equaliser which was probably the least they should have taken from the night.
The broader context, however, is still dispiriting. The French summer of 2016 seems a very long way off now and, though Ireland remain in the qualification running, the Russian summer of 2018 feels even further.
For that matter, even Vienna only last November seems almost to belong to another era, a time of heady optimism when James McClean’s winner against Austria put Ireland two points clear of Serbia at the top of Group D and four ahead of Wales.
Ireland took 10 points from four games before Christmas but have managed a mere three from four since then; a campaign of two halves if ever there was one.
After momentum was stalled with those three successive draws this year, Ireland’s World Cup bid went into reverse last night, with Serbia now odds on to claim the one automatic qualifying spot and, thanks to their 0-2 win in Moldova, the Welsh overtaking the Irish in second.
Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter were the sitting ducks of Saturday deemed surplus to requirements for Tuesday, with Martin O’Neill turning to Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler as he sought to bring some finesse as well as fire to an Irish side deployed as a 4-1-3-2 formation which also invited skipper Jon Walters to share the strikers’ burden with Shane Long.
Changed in personnel but utterly transformed in approach from Tbilisi, Ireland made the kind of vibrant start to the game that had Serbia rattled out of their usual fluent stride and which was rewarded by an appreciative Aviva in full voice.
Hoolahan made an immediate and significant impact on Ireland’s ability to not only retain the ball but use it progressively. As if inspired by the little man’s example, Robbie Brady and Cyrus Christie were also linking up well on the right side, a couple of crisp one-twos threatening to open up the Serbian rearguard.
It was moments after one such foray, with the visitors struggling to clear their lines, that Ireland had the ball in the net. A short corner routine saw Hoolahan feed Brady and his whipped cross was headed home by Shane Duffy who thought he’d scored his second game in two goals for Ireland only for his effort to be correctly ruled out for offside.
Hoolahan wasn’t just being composed and constructive: In the 20th minute, it was as a result of his terrier-like intervention to break up a Serbian attack that Walters was able to slip a beautiful ball to put Long in behind. The striker turned back inside and from just outside the box, arrowed a rising shot which Vladimir Stoojkovic tipped over the bar.
Darron Randolph was largely an untroubled spectator in his goal but was finally called on to do his bit for the cause in the 32nd minute when he showed good reflexes to get down and palm away a close range Aleksandar Mitrovic effort.
But otherwise, with David Meyler outstanding in midfield and McClean doing trojan work when tracking back and getting in tackles, this was an Irish performance which, going into half-time, had just about everything bar a goal.
An effort on the Irish goal soon after the restart, that saw Randolph relieved to be able to save comfortably from Dusan Tadic, served notice that Serbia were intent on upping their game in the second period.
But Ireland were quick to get back on the front foot, Brady finding Long with a great diagonal cross-field ball but, having cut inside onto his right foot again, the Southampton man’s shot didn’t have enough power to discomfort Stojkovic.
And, then almost out of nothing in the 55th minute, after failing to properly clear their lines, Ireland were undone by the night’s one piece of clinical finishing, the back-tracking Walters just failing to keep pace with Aleksandar Kolarov as the Roma man raced from deep to get on the end of a Filip Kostic pass across the face of the penalty area, and crash a shot in off the underside of the crossbar at Randolph’s near post.
O’Neill acted on the hour mark, but the introduction of Daryl Murphy for Wes Hoolahan got, it’s fair to say, a mixed reaction from the
faithful. Perhaps the fact that Hoolahan had been nursing a niggle going into the game was a factor in the manager’s thinking but, either way, the change suggested Ireland were going to go more long ball in a bid to get back into the game.
Cuneyt Cakir, the referee who’d sent off Keith Andrews and John O’Shea in previous games, then lent the Irish cause a helping hand — not that he had any alternative — as, fastening onto a Brady ball and with the goal beckoning, Nikola Maksimovic chopped him down and saw red.
Callum O’Dowda came in for Stephen Ward to bring added energy to what was now a wide open game being played out in an almost frantic atmosphere. To the anger of players and fans, a clear Irish penalty call was waved away by the Turkish referee after Lucas Milivojevic climbed all over Murphy as he tried to get on the end of fine O’Dowda cross.
And the striker had no more luck when he had a powerful point-blank shot parried by Stojkovic in the 85th minute but, even with five minutes of time added on, Ireland — now sorely missing Hoolahan’s guile — couldn’t find the key to unlock the 10-man rearguard as Serbia cutely ran down the clock to take the sting out of the home side’s lung-busting attempt at a grandstand finish.
Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward (O’Dowda 72), Meyler (Hoourihane 78), Arter, Walters, Hoolahan (Murphy 61), McClean, Long
Stojkovic, Vukovic, N. Maksimovic, Ivanovic, Rukavina, Milivojevic, N. Matic, Kolarov, Kostic (Mitrovic 72), A. Mitrovic (Prijovic 78), Tadic (Gudelj 80).
Cuneyt Cakir (TurkeY)
Republic of Ireland 0 Serbia 1