Serbia 3 Republic of Ireland 2
For a short spell in the second half it seemed as though we might have been watching a re-run of Ireland's last World Cup game in Belgrade unfold before our eyes. We wished! Once again, the visitors led then fell behind but when Aleksandar Mitrovic got his second goal in six minutes, the prospects of salvaging another draw immediately faded and so Ireland start their campaign with a loss.
That Stephen Kenny’s side rallied late on, got an unlikely second goal and pushed into injury time for an equaliser was hugely to their credit but Serbia were decisively the better side during the spell in which Mitrovic’s brace effectively won the game for them.
Ireland had started brightly and pursued a plan that made them very competitive for an hour or so but the effort, it seemed, had left too many players drained by the midway point in the second period, with the changes that the managers made tending to highlight the gap in the strength of their respective squads.
From his perspective, Kenny will be relieved that his side scored two goals – one involving real quality, the other terrific persistence – and pleased that a new formation worked well enough as long as his players had the energy to match their opponents. Alan Browne, who got that first goal, was excellent while relative newcomers Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby and Dara O'Shea all turned in solid performances.
Unfortunately, Dusan Tadic was a cut above just about everybody else out there and having worked so hard to stay focused in the face of fairly constant Serbia pressure, the defending started to crumble slightly as everyone tired and the Serbs started to stretch things more effectively.
Kenny must have known how tough a night it would be but if had been tempted to play things conservatively given the poor run of results in the autumn and the pressure to start showing some improvement here, it didn’t show in his team selection.
In Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady he left more than 150 caps and 14 goals on the bench. Shane Long had another 85 and 17 by himself and though three of the four were introduced over the course of the second half, the trust was placed in others.
The manager doubled down on the younger players, starting O'Shea in central defence with Séamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark and sticking with Molumby alongside Cullen in central midfield.
Aaron Connolly's presence was almost a given despite his recent injury, the only question beforehand being the specific role. In the end he started as one of two strikers in a 3-5-2 designed to better contain the home side's strikers, get Matt Doherty back into his preferred role and ensure Ireland would pose an attacking threat themselves.
Key to it all from early on was Browne, who sought to link the midfield with attack. The Preston player put huge energy into the role from the outset and while not everything went completely to plan, he personified the intent, working hard to unsettle opponents when chasing the ball, seeking to use the ball well while in possession.
The passing side of things remains a work in progress for the side even when they are playing well. They weren’t always good enough to retain the ball under pressure here. Doherty was guilty on a couple of occasions of giving the ball away a little carelessly but there were occasions too when the likes of Cullen or O’Shea settled fairly happily for putting the ball out of play around their own area rather than risk trying to work their way out. There times, too, when the visitors seized the opportunity to run at their opponents from deep positions, to build quickly and get bodies forward.
The approach paid off when they opened the scoring 20 minutes in with Browne starting things, quickly winning the ball back and playing it square to Enda Stevens when it was briefly lost, then getting forward and above Filip Mladenovic to head home Callum Robinson's perfectly weighted cross.
It would another 20 minutes before the hosts managed their first shot on target but they converted too with Tadic beating Clark to head Filip Djuricic's chipped ball on into space for Dusan Vlahovic, who got fractionally ahead of O'Shea before slotting the ball to the far corner as Mark Travers was edging towards the near.
Had the 21-year-old saved that with his outstretched leg and Ireland got to the break with a lead, it might have been a different night but the Serbs grew visibly in confidence after the ball rolled home, just inside the right-hand post.
There was nothing really that Travers could have done about the third either with Ireland losing the ball badly in midfield and Mitrovic getting between Clark and Stevens to head home from close range but he won’t like watching the Fulham striker’s first back with the Irishman caught off his line by the Serb who lobbed home from 25 yards out.
Both sides had penalty claims rejected. Ireland’s came first, which Kenny obviously saw as critical afterwards, but the home side’s was equally clearcut.
Late on, with the substitutes adding new energy, as they chased things and pulled one back when the other Mitrovic, Stefan attempted to head back towards his goalkeeper but got caught as Shane Long stole in and teed up James Collins who chased the ball home after his first attempt was blocked.
They kept at it but couldn’t save themselves. Kenny reckoned afterwards that his side had been hard done by, which is debatable, but there was certainly enough shown here to allow the team go into Saturday’s home game with Luxembourg believing they can get a first win then push on from there.
They will have to.
SERBIA: Dmitrovic (Eibar); Milenkovic (Fiorentina), S Mitrovic (Strasbourg), Pavlovic (Cercle Brugge); Gajic (Red Star), Lukic (Torino), Racic (Valencia), Mladenovic (Legia Warsaw); Tadic (Ajax), Vlahovic (Fiorenetina), Djuricic (Sassuolo).
Subs: Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt) for Mladenovic (half-time), A Mitrovic (Fulham) for Djuricic and Maksimovic (Getafe) for Racic (66 mins), Gudelj (Seville) for Tadij (78 mins), Jovic (Eintracht Frankfurt) for Vlahovic (82 mins).
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Travers (Bournemouth); Coleman (Everton), O'Shea (West Brom), Clark (Newcastle United); Doherty (Tottenham), Molumby (Preston)m Browne (Preston), Cullen (Anderlecht), Stevens (Sheffield United); Connolly (Brighton), Robinson (West Brom).
Subs: Hendrick (Newcastle United) for Molumby, Long (Bournemouth) for Connolly (67 mins), Brady (Burnley) for Clark, McClean (Stoke City) for Browne and Collins (Luton) for Robinson (79 mins).
Referee: D Massa (Italy).