Saturday 23 September 2017

Road to Russia blown away by Kolarov blast

R of Ireland 0 Serbia 1

Aleksandar Kolarov celebrates after scoring Serbia's winning goal at the Aviva. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Aleksandar Kolarov celebrates after scoring Serbia's winning goal at the Aviva. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The road to Russia effectively ended in Dublin last night as the only Irish interest in the 2018 World Cup finals is likely to come from our cousins across the border.

A 1-0 defeat at home to Serbia means that for this Ireland side, despite a performance last night which was an improvement on the awful fare served up in Georgia last week, leaves Ireland fighting to even get second-place, in itself not enough to guarantee a place in the play-offs.

But this World Cup dream was not just lost last night, this team in serious decline over the last few months, last night underlining again what the overlooked Wes Hoolahan can offer while David Meyler had the best game of his Ireland career.

Ireland played well for long spells, forced the game to Serbia thanks to Wes Hoolahan's promptings, and had claims for a penalty, though they were already 1-0 down and on the way out.

Ireland deserved a draw, at least, for the improvement on last week's offering in Georgia, and while the side need two wins in a row, it's hard to see them getting both.

A win for Wales in Moldova last night pushes them into second place so that date in Cardiff next month could be a play-off for second, but would anyone bank on the erratic Republic side winning two in a row?

Positives from last night are evident, this side capable of playing football when the right players are put into the right formation, but it's Serbia who now start looking at hotels in Russia.

The away side looked strangely subdued, perhaps forced into their shell by a Lansdowne Road crowd which took time to find its voice but became more vocal as the game went on and Ireland's grip on the match intensified.

For all their class, Serbia were on the back foot for long spells and it took them until the 33rd minute to come with with something to really trouble Darren Randolph in the Ireland goal.

Up to that point it had been impressive stuff from the boys in green. They began with an intensity and vigour that was oh so lacking in the draw in Georgia last week and the home date with Wales a few months earlier. But there was clearly a new mood about this Irish side and it's a big, big mystery how a side which was so tame in Tbilisi could be so dominant in Dublin.

One reason was clear: the sight of Wesley Hoolahan in the starting XI. By the time the first 20 minutes had elapsed, Hoolahan had single-handedly conjured up more moves, passes and passion that the Irish midfield managed in Georgia just days earlier.

Meyler, to his frustration a utility squad player at international level, was having the game of his life, summed up in one move when he won the ball off Filip Kostic with style.

A good move from Ireland on 28 minutes almost conjured up a goal, as Jon Walters, fed by Hoolahan, set up Shane Long and while his shot from distance was saved by the dodgy-looking Vladimir Stojkovic in the Serbia goal.

But there was a persistent fear that, for all of Ireland's possession, again a vast improvement on last week in Georgia, it was not amounting to enough.

And sure enough, predictably enough, it was some masterful passing from the men from the Balkans, a breed of people for whom passing is a treasured gift and not something to be feared, which won them their goal, won them the day and probably won Serbia a place at the World Cup finals.

The goal, on 55 minutes, was simple enough but also something to admire, a passing move involving Dusan Tadic, Nemanja Matic, Filip Kostic and when the ball was sent out to Kolarov, with Cyrus Christie hesitant, Kolarov was able to outmuscle Jon Walters and needed just a split-second to fire past Randolph in the Ireland goal.

Within seven minutes, Ireland's main attacking outlet, Hoolahan, was hauled ashore, replaced by Daryl Murphy.

The big man from Waterford, probably playing in his last campaign with Ireland, played a role in the latter stages: a foul on Murphy by Nikola Maksimovic earned the Serb a red card, while Murphy was denied a clear penalty following a foul by Jagos Vukovic.

But no joy would come Ireland's way, more agony heaped on with the decisions by the Turkish referee as bookings for James McClean and Robbie Brady mean they are suspended for the next game, at home to Moldova in a month's time.

Even a win there will not be enough to keep Ireland relevant in the race for Russia, this once-promising campaign petering out into a case of missed opportunity.

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