A point on the road from a World Cup opener against one of Ireland’s qualification rivals may represent mission accomplished but only the passing of time will determine whether this was a real opportunity missed.
While Ireland have been used to jostling with heavyweights such as Germany, France and Italy over previous campaigns, making second place the plausible target, the absence of a big gun from this pool affords scope for a dash towards top spot. Neither Wales nor Austria will run away with the group and so the opportunities to gain the upper hand in a tight group need to be capitalised upon.
As Roy Keane clapped the away fans in the away end of the Marakana Stadium, one must wonder if he’ll be of that mind. His Ireland team claimed a similar result, drawing 2-2 away to the Netherlands at the start of the 2002 World Cup series, and his sentiments have resonance in the fallout from this outcome.
“I think we have got to aim a little higher,” he thundered on that night in Amsterdam. “We’ve got to win matches. It is time we started qualifying for major finals again. Even tonight the fans will be happy with a 2-2 draw in Holland, of course they will.”
This Serbian side were certainly in the ilk of that Dutch team for quality and their shortcomings were exposed on a night of hairy moments in both defences.
Still, the way in which Ireland surrendered their lead in Belgrade brought to mind the Albert Einstein’s old adage of insanity. Martin O’Neill’s tactics for the opening World Cup qualifier constituted a replica to that of the last competitive outing, the 2-1 defeat to hosts France in June’s European Championships.
Just like that day in Lyon, Shane Long was deployed as the lone striker or, in reality, to act Ireland’s target-man.
Robbie Brady’s early goal provided a cushion, yet instead of building on the springboard, Ireland sat deep inviting the French into them.
The same scenario unfolded here, Long marooned up front working off scraps in the desperate hope of winning free-kicks to emphasise Ireland’s strengths.
It was therefore no surprise that Ireland’s goal and other best chance of the opening half were sourced from dead-balls. Serbia’s frailties at the back were evident as Jonathan Walters peeled off his marker to connect with Brady’s pinpoint corner-kick.
Much the same approach was adopted after the break, stretching to an hour the one-dimensional theme of O’Neill’s tactics. Although Serbia don’t possess the calibre of France’s world stars, the sense of inevitably was rife. And so the crack eventually showed. Two goals in quick succession obliterated that plan, leaving Ireland trying different but more effective weaponry in their attempts to retrieve a point.
Soon the visitors began to diversify by spreading the ball wide and getting attacks in from the wide positions. Walters had the ball in the net from Jeff Hendrick’s telegraphed delivery.
James McClean also rose majestically from a cross only to nod off-target. Serbia were on the rack, perhaps dazzled by Ireland’s departure from the default position, and they duly coughed up the equaliser from a cross.
Fans inside the stadium and at home can afford to question if the return was higher had the players been given that of licence in the first place.
Far from a lair that Ireland were entering, the Marakana had a empty feel to it at kick-off time as the decrepit old stadium seemed no more than a third full.
This was supposed to the dawn of a new era for the Serbians, eager to put a string of three qualification failures behind them by kick starting this campaign with fresh impetus. Efforts to give the 50,000-capacity area a throbbing atmosphere included the distribution of 10,000 free tickets to schoolkids. While incessant rain may have dampened their appetite to leave their couches on a dark and dull evening, Serbia’s history of false dawns was also a factor.
This was the eight successive campaign Serbia had not lost their opener, enough to silence some of their sceptics for the time being anyway. Where the point takes Ireland is also unknown.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved