Martin O’Neill left clutching at straws after bitter defeat

Defeat to Serbia leaves Ireland’s World Cup hopes hanging by a thread

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline during the World Cup qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Phortograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline during the World Cup qualifier against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Phortograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The campaign darkens. None of the tetchiness and anxiety generated in the heat of Tbilisi carried through to Dublin but Ireland lost anyway.

It became a place the country knows well; another autumn and another game in which the Republic of Ireland desperately chased a 0-1 deficit. 94 minutes gone. A last gasp corner; Darren Randolph abandoning his goal to join the attack. Whistles. Cheers. Prayers for something. For anything.

The improbable glories – the uncanny ability to rescue something from nothing – has been one of the chief persuasions of Martin O’Neill’s reign. But the cherished goal wouldn’t come.

Ireland have claimed just three points from the last four games and need to beat Moldova before a must-win game against Wales in Cardiff.

The team were much brighter and purposeful than they were against Georgia at the weekend but still couldn’t manufacture a goal against a muscular Serbian side that played with ten men for the last 25 minutes after Nikola Maksimovi cut the legs from under Daryl Murphy. Ireland just could not find a way to equalise.

“We played less successfully in the last 15 minutes because we had ten players left on the pitch,” said delighted Skavoljub Muslin, their coach and a veteran of the regal days of Red Star Belgrade.

“We also had one injured player throughout that period so practically we played with nine. But that was one of the most important games of my football career and one of the most difficult.”

That was the bottom line. There was plenty to admire about Ireland. David Meyler stepped into midfield for Glenn Whelan and had a hugely accomplished evening, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady came close to unpicking Serbia’s last line on several occasions and if wired passion were the most valued commodity in football, James McClean would be the world’s most expensive player.

Outrageous skill

You only had to read the players’ faces to see how desperately they wanted to give the crowd a goal. Their captain, Seamus Coleman watched forlornly from the stand. Not being out there is a kind of hell for the Killybegs man. Ireland lacked nothing except that quality of otherness; the capacity to turn a game with a moment of guile or outrageous skill or glacial composure.

Ireland tried to force the ball into the Serbian net on passion and guts alone. On other nights, that was enough. The trick didn’t work here.

“That has been the situation that the Republic of Ireland have had for 40-odd years perhaps,” said Martin O’Neill.

“Roy Keane was telling me even the great side that they possessed under Jack Charlton they were never running away with games. We need to find the net and a way to win. But I take the point. It is the clinical edge. In my tenure here we had an aging Robbie Keane. A 27-year -old Robbie Keane would have been in his element there.”

It’s as well O’Neill was never a boxing coach because he is incapable of ever throwing in a towel. He was, by his own standards, lavish in his praise of his players in defeat and remains hotly convinced that they can achieve wins against both Moldova and Wales to force a place in the place offs.

Brady and McClean will miss the Moldova encounter having picked up yellow cards in what was a full-blooded match. But if Ireland can win that one, this long, bruising campaign will be defined by what promises to be a night to remember in Cardiff.

“There’s a lot of disappointed players in there. It is not just words. It is how I feel. I think we can win both games and that’s what we have to do. I thought the players were fantastic. They gave every ounce for the shirt tonight. They had nothing left. And if they got just desserts- a penalty and a possible conversion- it would have been well deserved. Apparently their captain said it is the toughest game he played at international level.”

Scrambling defence

Daryl Murphy had a huge 76th minute penalty claim when Jagos Vukovic happily swung out of his neck to clear a dangerous cross from Callum O’Dowda, one of the replacements O’Neill sent on to try and rescue the game. Murphy also drew a reasonable save from Vladimir Stojkovic, whose slow restarts incensed the Dublin crowd anxiously eyeing the clock. Ireland had chances and limited Serbia to just a handful.

But the goal, a thunderbolt first time strike from Roma’s Aleksandar Kolorov after Filip Kostic slid a ball across the face of Ireland’s scrambling defence. It was an unstoppable strike: something from nothing. The lingering fear is that Ireland may be incapable of producing something similar if and when the game turns molten in Cardiff. For all of Ireland’s industry, things fell apart with the final pass or the wrong option.

“One of the distinguishing features about really top class side is the ability to pick a pass out under pressure and also to deal with it,” said O’Nell.

“And in the last seven or eight minutes I know we were going for it but you have to play with your head. You have to keep the ball alive. . ..”

O’Neill’s Ireland teams are, at least, masterful at keeping their interests alive until the very end. But their stunning opening act to this campaign, when they seemed set to saunter to Russia, is a distant memory now. It will boil down to the usual agony; minutes on the clock, backs against the wall and waiting for a goal, the goal which changes everything.

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