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Monday 26 September 2016

Ireland live on nerves but earn a point

Serbia 2 Republic of Ireland 2

Serbia’s Dusan Tadic celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game from the penalty
spot. Pic: PA
Serbia’s Dusan Tadic celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game from the penalty spot. Pic: PA
Irish players celebrate Jeff Hendrick's goal. Pic: Sportsfile

Action-packed doesn't quite cover it! An extraordinary match in rain-soaked Belgrade ended all square and tested the nerves of everyone who watched it.

A game which almost didn't happen delivered an amazing number of thrills and spills and both teams left the Red Star Stadium feeling they could have had more.

When the first downpour arrived early in the afternoon, it was truly biblical and with forecasters predicting hours of the same, it was looking bleak until referee Viktor Kassai made his inspection and gave the all-clear.

But the notion that Red Star's ramshackle, old school stadium would be a cauldron of hostile home fans was already questionable long before the rain started to fall simply because this team is not loved in Belgrade.

By the time Kassai signalled the start of proceedings, no more than 10,000 were in the ground and within three minutes of the start, those who did must have wondered why they bothered.

The 500 or so Ireland fans? They were singing in the rain in the third minute.

Cross

A free-kick on the left edge of the box from Robbie Brady was palmed away by goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, but quick-witted John O'Shea gathered and flicked a cross back in from the left.

With the ball pin-balling in the box, Shane Long got a touch which Jeff Hendrick gathered. His shot from the edge of the box took a deflection off Branislav Ivanovic on the way to the net.

Did the conditions play a part? Definitely, but luck is where you find it and Ireland soon almost had a second.

Brady's cross from the left found Jon Walters' head and with Long poised to swoop at the back post, the flag went up for offside.

It was a tonic start and exactly what O'Neill would have hoped for, but it was rapidly obvious that defending the lead would be no easy task.

Serbia poured forward and with the pitch cutting up like a bog, any ball into the Ireland penalty area was likely to do damage.

Filip Kostic, prompted by the increasingly influential Dusan Tadic, sent a shot wide and followed that with another attempt in the 13th minute which was the final act of a nerve-shredding Bambi-on-ice moment for the Ireland defence.

It wasn't the first. The Irish penalty area bore the scars of the hot action areas and it was very clear that players had to pick their footing very carefully.

In the 23rd minute, Serbia almost had their equaliser after a free-kick conceded by Stephen Ward flew into the box from Tadic's cultured foot.

Randolph got caught in a ruck of players and his punch took the ball towards goal, but Seamus Coleman popped up in the right place at the right time to lump the ball clear. A series of chances followed for Newcastle's Aleksandar Mitrovic, Tadic and Antonio Rukavina but each time an Irish boot, usually Coleman's, or Randolph intercepted.

Certainly, Randolph, O'Shea and the rest of the Irish defence were happy to see the break.

Serbia began the second half as they had finished the first, but without the same penetration until just after the hour when they finally made the breakthrough they had been threatening all night.

Ivanovic crossed from the left and found Tadic who bustled through the Irish defence and slipped a pass to the always dangerous Kostic. With defending arms raised for offside, he slipped the ball beyond Randolph's reach.

What had been a solid rearguard action now turned into something of a siege and, unfortunately, Ireland's resolve crumbled.

Jon Walters, chasing back to stop the rampaging Kostic bundled him over in the box and conceded a penalty. Tadic almost arrogantly chipped the ball straight down the middle for the lead.

Now Serbia had their tails up and Ireland were very lucky to keep the score to 2-1 in the minutes immediately after Tadic's successful spot-kick.

But Ireland built reserves of courage and endurance in France and, defying the odds, they found a foothold in the game again and pushed the Serbs back.

Chances fell to Long, McClean and substitute Daryl Murphy and only some great defending and goalkeeping maintained Serbia's lead.

Not for long. As the clock turned through 80 minutes, Murphy rose high to meet a Brady corner from the left and buried a header in the net - his first goal for Ireland in his 23rd appearance.

There were more scares, though. Coleman cleared off the line from Tadic with just minutes remaining keeping Irish hearts firmly in mouths. It was huge relief when Kassai blew for time.

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