Ireland’s U17s are playing catch-up already to reach the European Championships following defeat to Serbia in yesterday’s opening elite stage qualifier.
It was a cruel loss in Eindhoven for John Morling’s men, who created the majority of chances and missed a late penalty.
A close-range finish 14 minutes from the end by Partizan Belgrade midfielder Milan Jokic settled the encounter, putting Ireland’s destiny out of their hands, despite having two more games still to play. Up next for Ireland is a meeting with mini-group hosts Holland tomorrow, a tie they must win to harbour any ambition of winning the four-nation group and clinching the one ticket on offer into the finals in Slovenia this May.
With the stakes so high, neither side gambled much in attack, so Jack Grealish’s eight-yard volley on the hour which cleared the bar ranked as a big chance spurned in the first half.
To make matters worse, Serbia hit the front six minutes later. Their €3m-rated attacker Filip Jankovic, reputed to be heading for Roma in the summer, raided in from the left before cutting the ball back for Jokic to score, despite Irish keeper Eric Grimes getting a hand to the low shot.
If Jankovic provided Serbia’s spark, it was Grealish who was Ireland’s livewire. Two minutes from the finish, his mazy dribble was halted illegally inside the box by Nemanja Jaksic.
Jonathan Leddy had an unblemished record from the spot in an Irish shirt for the last two years but his attempt was turned around the post by Predrag Rajkovic in the Serbia goal.
A defiant Morling said afterwards: “Winning against Holland on their home patch will be a big task but I saw enough from our team against Serbia to be convinced we can do it.”
IRELAND: E Grimes (Leeds United); S Long (Cherry Orchard), K McFadden (Norwich City), R O’Reilly (Stoke), S Coyne (Cherry Orchard); T Mulroney (Crumlin United), G O’Neill (Wolves), J Leddy (Ipswich); D Hayes (Derby), S Byrne (Man Utd), J Grealish (Aston Villa).
Subs: C Wilkinson (Millwall) for O’Neill, D McGlade (Middlesbrough) for Hayes (both 73).
SERBIA: Rajkovic; Jaksic, Zdjelar, Veljkovic, Milosevic; Spremo, Jokic, Sakic, Simic; Jankovic; Bajic.
Subs: Zivkovic for Bajic (51), Lekovic for Spremo (78)
Referee: Á. Németh (Hungary).
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