Daryl Murphy earns point for Ireland in Belgrade
DARYL MURPHY chose the perfect moment to end his wait for a first Republic of Ireland goal when he came off the bench to snatch a 2-2 World Cup qualifier draw in Serbia.
Murphy's 80th-minute contribution to an eventful contest at the Rajko Mitic Stadium handed Ireland a positive start to their Group D campaign on a night when they never hit the heights they scaled at their best in France this summer. But as they always do, they kept going until the death and once again, emerged with something to show for their efforts.
Jeff Hendrick had got them off to a dream start with a third-minute opener, but when the hugely impressive Filip Kostic and Dusan struck within five minutes of each other, the writing looked to be on the wall for Martin O'Neill's men. But Murphy grasped a positive conclusion to a potentially damaging evening to send his side into their home clash with Georgia and Moldova away next month with something to build upon, if with questions to be answered.
O'Neill gambled on the fitness of skipper Seamus Coleman who has not yet kicked a ball in anger for club Everton this season because of an ankle injury, and drafted in experience in the shape of John O'Shea, Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters with Shane Duffy suspended, James McCarthy unfit and Murphy named among the substitutes. Opposite number Slavoljub Muslin was unable to call upon suspended duo Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic, and the new head coach's misfortune grew within three minutes of kick-off.
Robbie Brady, wearing the number 10 shirt vacated by retired talisman Robbie Keane, curled a free-kick into the penalty area which 20-year-old keeper Predrag Rajkovic, making his competitive debut, could only palm towards O'Shea. The defender drilled the ball back across goal where Shane Long's touch set it up nicely for Hendrick, challenged by assistant manager Roy Keane just days ago to add goals to his game, fired in a shot which wrong-footed Rajkovic and flew into the net.
On a pitch left slick by incessant rain which had started during the afternoon and continued at kick-off, the Serbs responded immediately and with Tadic and Kostic menacing in wide positions either side of striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ireland found themselves under pressure for extended periods.
But for all their share of the ball, the home side failed to create clear-cut chances with Mitrovic firing wastefully over from 20 yards until Kostic twice tested keeper Darren Randolph from distance, on the second occasion promoting a fine one-handed 23rd-minute save with a fizzing strike.
Ireland were having to defend deep and in numbers, but it was they who created the better chances, mainly from set-pieces, and they would have extended their lead eight minutes before the break when Jonathan Walters glanced another Brady free-kick towards goal, but saw Rajkovic parry his effort.
Serbia might have been back in it on the stroke of half-time when wing-back Antonio Rukavina ran on to Tadic's clever reverse pass and sent in a low cross which Randolph could only jab towards Mitrovic six yards out, but the Newcastle man could not control the ball on an increasingly uneven pitch and he and his team-mates headed for the dressing room to a chorus of boos.
But his side was level within 17 minutes of the restart when Tadic finally created the opening Serbia craved five minutes later and the unmarked Kostic tapped gleefully past the helpless Randolph. Ireland's night took a further turn for the worse within five minutes when Walters was adjudged to have fouled Kostic inside the penalty area - replays suggested the decision was generous - and Tadic fired expertly past Randolph from the spot.
The game should have been all over with 18 minutes remaining, but substitute Andrija Pavlovic contrived to hit the bar from point-blank distance after Randolph had saved Filip Mladenovic's effort, and the visitors thought they were level within seconds when Walters headed Hendrick's cross past Rajkovic, only for an offside flag to ruin his celebrations.
James McClean passed up a golden opportunity when he missed the target with a free header, but substitute Murphy was not so wasteful when he powered home from Brady's corner to snatch a point.
Serbia: Predrag Rajkovic, Ivanovic, Nastasic, Vukovic, Rukavina, Milivojevic, Gudelj, Mladenovic (Dusko Tosic 76), Tadic, Aleksandar Mitrovic (Pavlovic 59), Kostic (Katai 82); Subs Not Used: Dmitrovic, Zoran Tosic, Markovic, Nemanja Maksimovic, Stefan Mitrovic, Slobodan Rajkovic, Ignjovski, Stojiljkovic, Jovanovic; Booked: Nastasic, Katai; Goals: Kostic 62, Tadic 69 pen.
Rep of Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, O'Shea, Keogh, Ward (Quinn 71), Hendrick (Murphy 75), Whelan, Brady, Walters, Long (Clark 90), McClean; Subs Not Used: Westwood, McGeady, Arter, McShane, Hoolahan, Christie, Meyler, Wilson, Rogers; Booked: Ward, Hendrick, Brady, Whelan; Goals: Hendrick 3, Murphy 81.
Ref: V Kassai (Hungary).