Republic of Ireland 0 Serbia 1
If Saturday’s result dented Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for next Summer’s World Cup then this one might yet come to be regarded as the one that destroyed them. With two matches to play, Martin O’Neill’s side now need to leapfrog Wales, most likely by beating them in Cardiff, in order to secure even second place in this group. About the best case you could make for it just now is that the team seems to perform best with a big gun to its head. The stakes were clear enough here, though, and they were still not able to prevent Serbia all but clinching top spot by taking three points.
Aleksandar Kolarov scored the goal that decided it, a thundering strike that clattered the underside of the bar than bounced down as the scorer wheeled away in celebration. Behind him, players in green littered the area, lying injured or exhausted by the last ditch effort to prevent the Roma wing-back getting his shot away.
It pretty much encapsulated the events of the evening with every Irish player, it seemed, giving their all for the 90 minutes on a night when, unfortunately, their best simply wasn’t good enough.
As they chased the game against 10 men late on, they might have saved themselves and there were certainly strong claims for a penalty as Daryl Murphy was wrestled away from the path of a Callum O'Dowda cross by Jagos Vukovic. But, O'Neill had hoped for a win that might rank alongside the very best this side has achieved during his time in charge and, for all the improvement shown, the performance never quite merited that.
He can feel more aggrieved, perhaps, that Ireland did earn a draw but with the onus on them to carve out chances and goals, they didn't have quite enough about them in attack to do either. Shane Long had a couple of efforts from distance saved by Vladimir Stojkovic but it was Murphy who came closest to beating him in those frantic final exchanges when he reacted quickly to an initial effort being blocked and let fly with a right footed effort that required a very smart save.
Serbia, short a man for more than 20 minutes following the dismissal of Nikola Maksimonic for a foul on Murphy, but leading since the 55th, dug in determinedly as Ireland threw themselves forward with growing desperation and they, at least, will feel, they earned a win that takes them to the brink of qualification.
Shift in approach
With his options fairly limited O’Neill had, to be fair, shaken things up as much as could reasonably have been expected with two changes to personnel and a shift in approach all clearly intended, as the manager had said was his desire, to get Ireland on the front foot.
Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter both paid for their performances in Tbilisi with their places with David Meyler taking over as the anchor in a reshaped midfield and Wes Hoolahan slotting back in at the tip of a diamond, behind Shane Long and Jon Walters.
The changes immediately seemed to give Ireland a greater potential to pose a threat further forward and the loss of a defensive midfielder was partially compensated for by locating James McClean closer to the centre, where he was very quick to demonstrate his determination to let no one pass unchallenged.
The only slightly uncomfortable thought prompted by the first half display that followed was: what if they had played like this in Tbilisi, where the mix of greater energy, inventiveness and grit would surely have made life so much more difficult for the Georgians and quite possibly have yielded the two extra points that the team could dearly do with now?
The Serbs at least knew they were in a game, and if their goalscoring chances were probably the more clearcut, Ireland had their moments from early on with Hoolahan and Robbie Brady looking as though they were enjoying each other's company.
With no wingers as such, Ireland concentrated to some extent on the centre while looking to Cyrus Christie to get forward down his flank, and the right back linked up with well with Brady, occasionally threatening to set something up for Long and Jon Walters. Too many of Ireland's final balls into the box were badly judged or executed, though, and Brady, for all his clever running play, didn't quite deliver from set pieces in the way that would have been hoped.
Christie, meanwhile, was caught out more than once as the Serbs worked their way down that side and when Filip Kostic got the wrong side of him inside the area, he must have been relieved to see that Aleksandar Mitrovic's shot lacked the power required to beat Darren Randolph, who did enough to allow Stephen Ward scramble the ball behind.
At the other end Long forced Vladimir Stojkovic into his first save of the night and while it was a half decent effort by the Irish striker it was always fairly easily within the goalkeeper’s reach.
So it continued with Ireland, unsurprisingly, looking like the side more determined to open the scoring in a frantic game - but their opponents looking more likely to do it, for they were that bit cooler and calculating on the ball.
For the most part Mitrovic was well looked after by his Newcastle clubmate Ciaran Clark but to either side, the Irish looked to be working flat out in order to cope and there was the sense that they might struggle to keep that up.
Like Hoolahan, though, Meyler was impressing in midfield, nonchalantly, it seemed at times, breaking up Serbian breaks and if there was a bit of good fortune involved on the odd occasion then it held up until he was replaced by Conor Hourihane 11 minutes from time, by which stage the home side were trailing and O'Neill, having already introduced O'Dowda and Murphy, was really having to go for it.
Had this been early or mid campaign there would be positives to be drawn from the scale of the improvement, but all of those are comfortably eclipsed by the result and its impact on Ireland’s chances of qualification.
They are not over by a long shot but they are severely diminished and to make matters that little bit more challenging Moldova will have to be beaten without either McClean or Brady, both of whom will be suspended.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (Middlebrough); Christie (Middlesbrough), Duffy (Brighton), Clark (Newcastle), Ward (Burnley); Brady (Burnley), Meyler (Hull City), Hoolahan (Norwich City), McClean (West Brom); Walters (Burnley), Long (Southampton).
Subs: Murphy (Nottingham Forest) for Hoolahan (62 mins), C O'Dowda (Bristol City) for Ward (72 mins), C Hourihane (Aston Villa) for Meyler (79 mins). Yellow cards: Brady (70 mins), McClean (74 mins).
SERBIA: Stojkovic (Partizan); Ivanovic (Zenit St Petersburg), Maksimovic (Napoli), Vukovic (Olympiacos); Rukavina (Villareal), Matic (Manchester United), Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Kolarov (Roma); Tadic Southampton), Mitrovic (Newcastle United), Kostic (Hamburg).
Subs: Stefan Mitrovic (Gent) for Kostic (72 mins), A Prijovic (PAOK) for A Mirovic (79 mins), N Gudelj (Tianjin Teda) for Tadic (81 mins). Yellow card: Rukavina (53 mins), Red card: Maksimovic (68 mins).
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).