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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Odds are stacked against Ireland after Serbian setback

Serbia’s Aleksandar Kolarov celebrates scoring their winning goal with team mates. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Serbia’s Aleksandar Kolarov celebrates scoring their winning goal with team mates. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

"We are not the most talented outfit that has played for the Republic of Ireland."

Strange are the ways of 'Mister Motivator', aka Ireland coach Martin O'Neill.

He needed a super-human performance from his squad last night.

And, at least publicly, he went about it by reminding his players that he reckons they're not too hot.

And, yes, the team's performance in Tbilisi hadn't inspired confidence.

Abysmal, abject and atrocious were some of the words used to describe a shambolic showing against Georgia, a team ranked 153rd when the qualifying draw was made.

It was against this backdrop that pulses raced last night as Ireland lined out against a Serbia side that had had four changes from the team that started in the 2-2 draw away last September.

That the incoming names included Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov, as well as first-choice keeper Vladimir Stojkovic and Napoli defender Nikola Maksimovic didn't soothe any nerves.

Changes

But then Ireland had a few changes of their own.

David Meyler had been fearless when we beat Austria in Vienna. And seeing Wes Hoolahan was a hugely positive sign.

As play got under way, Martin O'Neill danced, sprite-like, in his technical area, his flailing arms orchestrated a personal choreography of angst or outrage.

Serbia looked slick early on.

Just as it seemed they might impose themselves, with the crowd holding its collective breath as they prepared to take their first corner on seven minutes, they threw us a bone by putting a pre-planned short corner wide.

Suspicions that Serbia's manager Slavoljub Muslin might not have resolved his team's defensive problems received early examination on nine minutes when a well-worked Irish corner move resulted in keeper Stojkovic picking the ball out of his net.

Unfortunately, his relief was obvious as the referee signalled offside to spoil an Irish party.

But the supporters would take anything they could get. And this told them Serbia could be nervous under the high ball.

With Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean twitching like greyhounds, Ireland looked like they might create chances.

This was more like the Boys in Green we like to imagine. Comfortable on the ball, crisp short passes, sudden attacking bursts and players tracking back to deny the opposition.

Meyler and McClean grew in stature in the middle of the pitch.

O'Neill upped his game too. Soon he was like a hyper lollipop lady conducting on the last night of the Proms.

Shades of Saturday's uncertainty crept in on the half hour mark with Darren Randolph having to make up for gifting a clearance to Kolarov by diving to deny Mitrovic a goal.

It was all hands on deck for this one and the crowd played a blinder too, raising the roof.

As sheets of drizzle swept across the pitch Serbia looked uneasy. Antonio Rukavina upended Ward and received a yellow card.

Then, as unannounced as an earthquake, Serbia struck.

Like an unwanted phone call from your GP after a routine medical test, Kolarov's goal sent shockwaves through the Aviva. Ireland began to look addled.

To their credit, they quickly got a grip and pressed for an advantage.

Concern at the departure of Wes Hoolahan abated quickly when Nikola Maksimovic ploughed into his replacement Daryl Murphy from behind and received a straight red. Suddenly Ireland had a lifeline and 22 minutes to find a way to secure the points essential to survival.

As the clock ticked down, we heard that Wales had gone ahead against Moldova.

With five minutes left Jagos Vukovic picked up a hamstring injury but couldn't go off because Serbia had used all their substitutions.

In the dying minutes, Ireland struggled to unlock a Serbia side of nine fit men and a passenger. Panic set in. Players snatched at shots. High hopeful balls were headed out by the men in red shirts. Needless fouls handed possession back to Serbia. A well of frustration bubbled like a witch's cauldron.

Fixtures

Had Ireland played in Tbilisi like they did for most of last night, they'd probably have come away from these two fixtures with three points instead of one.

No amount of arm-waving by Martin O'Neill will be able to explain that one away.

Too little, too late.

And now Ireland face into two remaining matches needing a miracle.

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