Serbia 2 Republic of Ireland 2: After Robbie Keane’s retirement, the big question was where would Ireland’s goals come from?
Well, we got part of the answer in a rollercoaster game in Belgrade last night as Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy stepped up to register their first goals for their country.
The new Premier League man had seemed to set Ireland on the road to a big win away from home inside just two minutes but, after the visitors then comprehensively lost their way and saw Serbia take command of the game and the scoreboard, it was substitute Murphy who saved the night 10 minutes from time and left the travelling fans singing in the rain with his own long-awaited first international goal.
The result of it all was a torrid affair Ireland could very easily have lost, having badly squandered their early initiative against a Serbian side of no little attacking élan, but which, thanks more to guts than guile — and a familiar exploitation of Robbie Brady’s expertise from the set-piece — ended up yielding a valuable point with which to kick off the World Cup campaign.
Earlier in the day, summer had given away to autumn in Belgrade with an almost shocking abruptness, the baking heat and blue skies of the weekend replaced by overcast skies and a sharp drop in temperature. Then came the rain, beginning around mid-afternoon with a cloudburst that sent torrents of water spilling down the hillier streets of the city and, having relented only slightly, continuing right up to kick-off and beyond as a relentless drizzle soaked the pitch of the Stadion Rajko Mitic.
The weather was sufficiently awful to have many wondering if the game would go ahead but, having inspected the pitch of the ‘Marakana’ an hour and a half before kick off, Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai gave the green light.
The cliché in advance of the game was that the Irish were venturing into hostile territory at the home of Red Star Belgrade but, as the game kicked off, the atmosphere in the largely empty stadium was rather more damp than fiery, the spectators who’d brave the elements — including a few hundred Irish supporters — huddling together at the back of the stands in a bid to stay dry.
The recovery from injury of John O’Shea and Seamus Coleman, Ireland’s new captain in the wake of Robbie Keane’s international retirement, meant that, with the exception of the absent James McCarthy, Martin O’Neill was able to field his strongest possible side, one which blended the veteran experience of the likes of O’Shea and Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters with new heroes from the Euros qualifiers and finals in the form of Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean and Shane Long.
New Serbian manager Slavoljub Muslin had rung the changes at the start, with only three of his starting 11 retained from their last Euros qualifiers, although there would, of course, have been places for Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic had they not been suspended. Summing up the new era, 20-year-old goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic was handed his competitive debut, the Maccabi Tel Aviv man getting a taste of Irish opposition before he faces Dundalk in the Europa League.
And inside just two minutes, the young man was picking the ball out of the net as Ireland got off to a perfect start. After a swift, penetrating attack fashioned by a combination of Stephen Ward, Shane Long James McClean, Rajkovic had initially done well to push away a Robbie Brady free-kick on the treacherous surface. But when John O’Shea returned the ball into the box from the right, the panicked Serbian rearguard was unable to clear its lines, allowing Jeff Hendrick to open his Irish goal-scoring account — something he’d said he was determined to do at the previous day’s pre-match press conference — albeit via a deflection off Serbian skipper, Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.
With Southampton playmaker Dusan Tadic pulling the strings at number 10, and Serbian wingbacks Antonio Rukavina and Filip Mladenovic a constant threat high up on both flanks, the Irish defence had to be alert to snuff out danger as the home side pushed forward with pace and panache in an effort to recover from the shock of the early concession. But it was still 16 minutes into the match before Darren Randolph got his gloves wet, as he comfortably cradled a shot from Filip Kostic at the end of another swift Serbian break.
However, with pressure from the home side increasing, Seamus Coleman had to clear a loose ball from just in front of the goal-line after Randolph had made a hash of punching clear before, almost immediately, the ‘keeper made up for his error with a full-length dive to turn away an angled drive from Kostic.
It was one-way traffic now, Ireland pegged back in their own half and unable to get possession of the ball other than to hoof it away, leaving Shane Long isolated at the other end of the pitch. But a brief respite in the 37th minute almost provided a second goal against the run of play as, once again from a Brady free-kick, Rajkovic’s diving save kept out a Jon Walters header before Brady had to immediately revert to being a defender, racing back at full tilt to thwart a Serbian counter-attack.
The half ended with the ball bobbling about in the six-yard Irish box, lacking only a decisive touch from Aleksandar Mitrovic to calm the crowd’s growing frustration — a pretty accurate summation, in microcosm, of how proceedings had gone since Ireland’s early goal, a lead they still retained going in at the break.
And it’s how things resumed in the second half, the case for getting Wes Hoolahan on the pitch seeming overwhelming as the white shirts barely got a sniff of the ball. But with Serbia still struggling to find the killer touch in front of goal, Muslin blinked first, sending on Andrija Pavlovic for the misfiring Mitrovic in the hope of getting the home side back into the game.
But when, with a certain inevitability, the equaliser finally came just past the hour mark, it was two of Serbia’s most impressive performers who combined to create the breakthrough, Kostic providing the emphatic close-range finish after Tadic had found him free in the box.
And things went from bad to worse for Ireland in the 67th minute when Kostic made the most of the slightest contact with Walters to go down inside the penalty area, Tadic stepping up to make the most of the referee’s generosity by lift the spot-kick high into the net.
It might even have been three for rampant Serbia when substitute Pavlovic smashed one off the bar before, at the other end, Walters had a headed goal disallowed for offside. But with Stephen Quinn and Daryl Murphy on for Ireland there was, as there had to be, more urgency from the visitors who were finally, and belatedly, asking a few serious questions of the Serbian defence.
And then in the 81st minute, there was the hugely welcome sight of a second Irish player scoring his first goal for his country, Murphy thumping home a powerful header from a Brady corner to make it 2-2.
It all made for a pulsating, not to say nerve-jangling, end to the match, especially for the visitors, with Ireland having Coleman to thank again for another clearance of the line as they clung on for what might prove a valuable, and what was certainly a very hard-earned, point.
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