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Sport

Despair for Ireland as World Cup qualification hopes hang by a thread

Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov scores the only goal of the game at the Aviva Stadium
Brendan Crossan at the Aviva Stadium

World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 0 Serbia 1

AN utterly breathless night in Dublin that ended in despair for the Republic of Ireland as their 2018 World Cup qualification hopes hang by a thread.

Martin O’Neill’s men couldn’t have given another bead of sweat for the cause as they went down fighting to 10-man Serbia last night.

A pile driver from AS Roma defender Aleksandar Kolarov on 55 minutes was enough to separate the top two sides in Group D – but it was rough justice on the Irish.

They played with energy, heart and skill, but they couldn’t find a way past a stubborn Serbian back-line.

With Wales sealing victory over Moldova last night the Republic dropped into third place and will need to beat their Celtic neighbours in Cardiff next month.

On the evidence of last night’s fighting display, all is not lost.

But the pain of this defeat will take some time to heal as Serbia look odds-on to top the group.

The Republic had a couple of chances to equalise, substitute Daryl Murphy had a stonewall penalty turned down and had another snap-shot saved.

They threw the kitchen sink at their visitors but ultimately came up short and couldn’t undo their opponents who had been reduced to 10 men with 22 minutes remaining.

Last night’s defeat will leave Martin O’Neill’s men ruing their terrible display in Tbilisi three nights earlier that yielded only a point.

As expected, O’Neill made a couple of changes to the side that performed so poorly in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Georgia – and those changes came in midfield, which was a problem position for the Republic three nights earlier.

Wes Hoolahan managed to shrug off a groin problem to claim his 41st cap and Hull City’s David Meyler also came into Ireland’s starting line-up.

Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter dropped out of the Irish team.

Hoolahan was drafted into the side to give the side much-needed passing element, something that was sorely absent in Tbilisi.

It was no surprise that Whelan made way and, even though Arter was equally ineffective in Tbilisi, it was felt the Bournemouth man would be given a stay of execution for last night’s Serbia clash.

But O’Neill opted for the novel central midfield trio of Meyler, Robbie Brady and James McClean, with Hoolahan stationed ahead of them.

The manager stuck with the same back four with Stephen Ward keeping hold of the left back berth.

The Burnley man had a solid enough game against Georgia but it was thought O’Neill might be tempted to move Brady to the full-back slot to give the side more attacking width.

Up front, Jon Walters was paired with Shane Long.

Even though Serbia skated to a 3-0 home win over Moldova on Saturday to strengthen their grip on top spot, their manager Slavoluub Muslin made four changes to his side for last night’s top-of-the-group clash with Ireland.

Nottingham Forest ’keeper Vladimir Stojkovic was preferred in Serbia’s goal while Villarreal’s Antonio Rukavina came into the side alongside Jagos Vukovic and Luka Milivojevic.

All Serbia’s big guns were named for last night’s high-stakes game, including Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic, Aleksandar Kolarov and captain Branislav Ivanovic.

Whether it was the two personnel changes or simply dented pride, the Republic produced a barnstorming first half and even though they didn’t create too many chances their approach play was excellent at times.

O’Neill teams are nothing without emotion – an element that was missing in Tbilisi.

But it wasn’t last night. The handbrake was off from the first whistle.

Ireland’s play had tempo and plenty of guile too. Hoolahan ticked all the boxes, and more, in the first half. Not only was the 35-year-old schemer knitting play, he was winning possession back from Serbia’s midfield who seemed to be dazed by the energy with which their hosts played with.

Cyrus Christie gave his best impression yet of Seamus Coleman at right back, raiding forward at every opportunity.

Some deft touches from Brady allowed Christie to break defensive lines – but the Serb defence stood tall under some educated pressure.

As ever, James McClean enthralled the home crowd with umpteen dispossessions and uncompromising tackles.

Ireland’s front pairing of Walters and Long worked tirelessly and never gave the three-man Serbian central defence time to breathe.

The Irish players were so energised by the night that it cast last Saturday’s performance against Georgia in a more unforgiving light.

Central defender Shane Duffy, fast becoming the Republic’s most dangerous weapon in the opposition’s penalty area, had the ball in the Serbian net from Brady’s brilliant cross but the big Derry man had drifted offside and there was no great protest from the home bench.

It’s doubtful if the Republic strung together four consecutive passes against Georgia. They did in the 20th minute when Hoolahan won possession in his own half, he released McClean. The WBA winger ushered the ball on to Walters before Long entered stage left who unleashed a thunderous effort from distance that Stojkovic had to tip over the crossbar.

And just when the home side seemed to be catching their breath after the break, Filip Kostic rolled the ball invitingly to Kolarov, who had out-paced Walters on the left by a half yard, and he blasted the ball into the roof of Ireland’s net.

It was a devastating blow.

Strangely, O’Neill substituted Hoolahan after 62 minutes when they needed a bit of guile in the final half hour.

Daryl Murphy did however make a difference. He was up-ended by Nikola Maksimovic on 68 minutes after the Irish striker was about to get on the end of Robbie Brady’s through pass.

And the same player seemed to be impeded in the penalty area but no penalty was awarded and with four minutes later the bustling Notts Forest striker was denied by Stojkovic in goal.

The Irish huffed and puffed right to the last second – but couldn’t find an equaliser.

They face an uphill battle to reach Russia next summer. But a win in Cardiff is not out of the question. We live in hope…

Rep of Ireland: Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward (O’Dowda 72), Hoolahan (Murphy 62), Meyler (Hourihane 80), Brady, Walters, Shane Long, McClean

Subs Not Used: Westwood, O’Shea, Keogh, Whelan, Horgan, Kevin Long, Hayes, Arter, Elliot.

Booked: Brady, McClean.

Serbia: Stojkovic, Vukovic, Nikola Maksimovic, Ivanovic, Rukavina, Milivojevic, Nemanja Matic, Kolarov, Kostic (Stefan Mitrovic 72), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Prijovic 79), Tadic (Gudelj 81).

Subs Not Used: Rajkovic, Obradovic, Nastasic, Tosic, Gacinovic, Spajic, Radoja, Ljajic, Jovanovic.

Sent Off: Nikola Maksimovic (69).

Booked: Rukavina, Stojkovic.

Goals: Kolarov 55.

Ref: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)

 

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND PLAYER RATINGS

Darren Randolph: The Middlesboro ’keeper made a smart save to deny Mitrovic in the 33rd minute and played the sweeper-keeper to good effect at times. Absolutely no chance of saving Kolarov’s rocket. 7

Cyrus Christie: Made some superb runs forward and his end product was good. The Middlesbrough man also showed great recovery to keep out Mitrovic in the first half. Grew in stature in this game. 7.5

Stephen Ward: Solid in defence and had double the energy he had in Tbilisi. Doesn’t make many mistakes and won his fair share of 50-50s. Replaced late on with Brady dropping in at left back. 7

Ciaran Clark: Apart from one first half blip when he failed to deal with a simple ball he defended well against a top-rated Serbian attack. 7

Shane Duffy: Had the ball in the net in the first half but was rightly ruled offside. Full-blooded in the tackle lost few aerial battles. 7

David Meyler: Drafted into the starting line-up in place of Glenn Whelan and justified his inclusion. Had a lot of ground to cover because Brady and McClean were on the front foot so much but put out a lot of Serbian fires with incredible composure. 8

Robbie Brady: Played to the right of midfield and gave a much-improved display than against Georgia. Linked up with Christie well and some of his passing was excellent, particularly in the second half. 8

Wes Hoolahan: Typically creative in the first half and also won his fair share of dispossessions. He was having a quiet period when he was substitution but still a strange decision by O’Neill. 7

Jon Walters: A half a stride too late to stop Kolarov’s 55th minute rocket. Otherwise worked hard and recycled the ball well but never got much change out of the Serbs. 6

Shane Long: More effective with an out-and-out strike partner. His pace almost got him on the end of several balls. Had a couple of shots at goal and was unlucky not to score. 7

STAR MAN

James McClean: His attitude to his profession is a lesson to every aspiring young footballer. Hard to find a player that works as hard as the Derry man. Exemplary again. Made some brilliant tackles and always a threat in attack. 8

Substitutes:

Daryl Murphy: A battering ram that caused Serbia’s defence a lot of stress. Forced a red card for Maksimovic and should have won a penalty but the ref didn’t see the infringement. Unlucky with a late effort. 7

Callum O’Dowda: Crossed for Murphy who appeared to be held, but no penalty was given. 5

Conor Hourihane: In-form Aston Villa man entered for Meyler on 79 minutes as Ireland went for broke. 5

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