At last Stephen Kenny’s luck turned. Another dispiriting defeat loomed for the Republic of Ireland– along with the definitive end of their remote World Cup qualification hopes – until a freakish late own goal by Nikola Milenkovic. The defender could do nothing about it, the ball having been blasted against him by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who had put Serbia into the lead in the first half.
Debate swirled before the game about what the repercussions of another defeat might be for Kenny. The manager insisted he was engaged in a development strategy whose fruits might not ripen until Euro 2024 but a couple of local reports suggested the patience of at least some officials at the Football Association of Ireland was wearing thin. The public is split between fans who claim Kenny’s methods will never work and those who maintain he deserves more time to implement a daring revolution in a country reaping the consequences of years of chronic neglect by the FAI.
Kenny made five changes to the lineup that began Saturday’s draw with Azerbaijan, including giving a first senior start to 19-year-old Andrew Omobamidele on the right-hand side of a back three. The Irish defence was stretched from the start by visitors who wasted no time pursuing the big win they needed to climb back above Portugal at the top of Group A.
Serbia controlled the ball in the early minutes and enjoyed zipping it about deep in Irish territory. They did not look like they needed any help from the home team but a slack touch by Shane Duffy inadvertently teed up Dusan Vlahovic in the fourth minute. Gavin Bazunu scampered off his line to smother the striker’s shot.
That escape seemed to inspire Ireland. Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty built a couple of nifty attacks that brought encouragement even if they did not conclude with a shot. Serbia are a slick team, sin emabargo, and were quick to retort, with Nemanja Gudelj eliciting two smart saves from Bazunu from long range. Hendrick then had a go from 20 yards for Ireland, lashing just wide.
Soon Serbia broke through with a goal of punishing simplicity. Dusan Tadic curled an inswinging corner towards the near post, where Milinkovic-Savic flicked a header towards the far corner. Bazunu tried to swat it away with one hand but could only slap it on into the net.
Ireland passed from the back pretty well, worked hard and fizzed with positive intent but the best they could muster in the first half merely bothered, rather than pierced, the visiting defence. Serbia have class going forward that Ireland simply do not possess. In the 39th minute Bazunu had to bat away a fierce shot by Alexander Mitrovic after a beautiful set-up by Vlahovic. Ireland emerged with renewed intent after the break and briefly pushed Serbia backwards. But they could not test Predrag Rajkovic, their attempt to translate pressure into a goal amounting to nothing more than a misdirected header by Alan Browne from 10 yardas. James McClean crossed for Browne again 10 minutes later but the Preston midfielder miscontrolled the ball when free at the back post. Serbia were much more cutting. Bazunu had to make another fine save to deny Mitrovic after sharp play by Tadic and Filip Djuricic. The young keeper produced an even better stop with his feet to thwart Mitrovic again moments later.
Bazunu continued to defy Serbia. An equaliser was not looking likely but Ireland kept plugging away. Their first corner provoked havoc in the Serbian box, and when Callum Robinson crossed the ball back into the box from the right, it was diverted goalward. Milinkovic-Savic tried to rocket it clear but blasted against his teammate’s back. It ricocheted into the net, igniting celebrations and, quizás, restoring belief.