Republic of Ireland 1 Serbia 1
A rare night on Lansdowne Road. Still no win, but Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland went toe to toe with a powerful, technically superior Serbian outfit and through sheer force of character ended up with a calamitous late equaliser.
The calamity was all Serbian.
Having been dropped by a Sergej Milinkovic-Savic header in the 20th minute, and only kept in the match by teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, Nikola Milenkovic’s late own goal, under heavy pressure from Shane Duffy, secured a memorable point despite qualification for the World Cup being all but lost.
Remarkably, Duffy almost nodded a winner in injury time after Callum Robinson’s superb cross.
There was more. After Andrew Omobamidele’s rasping shot drew a sensational save from Predrag Rajkovic, it ended with Serbia on the rack, desperately trying to clear a succession of corners.
That does not come close to telling the full story of this Irish performance.
Some harsh lessons were on offer, perhaps none more so than the attitude of the Serbians at 1-0. They kept coming in waves, with a black-eyed Aleksandar Mitrovic determined to increase his stellar international goal count.
Bazunu flatly refused to concede a second with a string of outstanding stops. The other teenager, Omobamidele, also planted a flag to signal a bright future in green with a mature, unbreakable showing alongside Duffy and John Egan.
As the night wore on, an inspirational James McClean saved Bazunu’s blushes when the Derry winger intervened just before Memanja Radonjic could finish after the young goalkeeper was caught in no man’s land.
McClean’s intervention prompted the 25,415 crowd to burst into a rendition of the Fields of Athenry.
They were hoarse by the end.
After the national anthems and before kick-off, a banner was unfurled behind Bazunu’s goal - “In Kenny we trust” replaced the old favourite “Delaney out” as the fans made their own statement on their manager.
No touts around Ballsbridge. €100 a ticket, at face value, is a hard sell considering what has gone before and what is happening now. Still, the first floodlit crowd inside the Aviva since forever got their money’s worth from this adrenaline-fuelled contest.
Ireland thundered into Serbia in the same fashion they rattled Portugal and Azerbaijan last Saturday, with Jeff Hendrick demanding short balls from his defenders and igniting attacks.
Similar to Saturday’s disappointing draw, Matt Doherty was presented with an early chance, but he could not make a solid connection as Hendrick’s snap shot was blocked before Adam Idah headed wide from an offside position.
Serbia were equally dangerous with Dusan Tadic twice forcing Bazunu to hold low shots but the supporters became fully committed to the cause when Hendrick’s instinctive effort went inches wide of Rajkovic’s post.
Serbian coach Dragan Stojkovic - the Yugoslav super star from Italia ‘90 - selected six attackers to keep pace with Portugal at the top of Group A and each one of them came to punish Ireland’s occasionally loose efforts to adopt the beautiful game.
What will infuriate Kenny the most is that the goal was a Serb calling card; a Tadic corner finding Milinkovic-Savic’s diagonal run to the front post.
When Omobamidele denied a certain goal, Tadic coolly picked out Milinkovic-Savic as Alan Browne completely lost the Lazio midfielder while Hendrick was caught marking space.
More of the same seemed inevitable. Manchester City were unable to pry Dušan Vlahovic from Fiorentina for €70 million during the transfer window but, after seeing him out muscle Egan to chest down for Mitrovic, an improved offer in January seems guaranteed. Bazunu proved equal to the strike, but Ireland’s back three were living off their nerves. Hendrick no longer had time to turn and pick a pass. Nobody did.
Vlahovic was eventually replaced with Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic, as they kept coming.
One-nil at half-time, considering the gulf in quality between players attempting a similarly expressive approach, was an achievement in itself.
The Irish wing backs, McClean and Doherty, continually asked questions with decent crosses into the box, but for every attack Serbia would respond with some ruthlessly accurate passing to force Bazunu to twice deny Mitrovic with fantastic point blank saves.
Kenny reacted to the onslaught on the hour mark with Robinson replacing Browne. Idah returns to Norwich City with his reputation enhanced beyond all expectations. The 20-year-old has looked the part, leading the line three times in six days but, unlike Robinson, he has yet to become a goal scorer in English football, or at this level.
But the pair had Serbian in all sorts of hassle down the stretch with Robinson supplying the ball into a heap of bodies for the equaliser.
In his programme notes Kenny explained how incomparable Irish football is to Serbia. Besides similar populations, the visitors are an elite nation thanks to decades developing their “indigenous clubs Partizan Belgrade and Crvena Zvezda amongst others.”
“It would be naive to suggest that we couldn’t learn from [Serbia and Croatia] as we search for a different pathway for greater numbers of Irish players and the broader development of football in Ireland” he wrote, also noting how Brexit blocking Irish teenagers from moving to British clubs until they turn 18 has “irrevocably altered the dynamics for the pathway of young Irish players.”
Only problem, Kenny screams like the ghost of the canary in the coal mine, is “limited infrastructure, finance and facilities in Ireland.”
Sisyphus had an easier gig, but at least the rock is nearly up the hill after this result.
Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; Shane Duffy, John Egan, Andrew Omobamidele; Matt Doherty, James McClean, Josh Cullen (Jayson Mollumby 66), Jeff Hendrick (Conor Hourihane 78), Alan Browne (Callum Robinson 58); Jamie McGrath (Daryl Horgan 66), Adam Idah (James Collins 78)
Serbia: Predrag Rajkovic, Strahinja Pavlovic, Milos Veljkovic, Nikola Milenkovic; Nemanja Gudelj, Filip Kostic, Filip Djuricic (Nemanja Radonjic 70), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Dusan Tadic (capt) (Nemanja Maksimovic 83); Dusan Vlahovic (Luka Jovic 70), Aleksandar Mitrovic
Referee: José María Sánchez (ESP)