Serbia come from behind to slay gutsy Irish in Belgrade

Alan Browne put the Irish ahead before the Serbs hit back with three goals to win 3-1
Alan Browne put the Irish ahead before the Serbs hit back with three goals to win 3-1

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying Group A: Serbia 3 Republic of Ireland 2

THREE pieces of class finishing from Serbia dashed the Republic of Ireland’s giddy hopes of starting their World Cup qualification campaign with a win in Belgrade last night.

A second-half double from Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and a fine left-footed finish from Dusan Vlahovic just before the break saw off Ireland’s brave challenge.

Given the amount of players Stephen Kenny was missing last night and the lack of game-time at club level for some of his starting players, it was always going to be a tall order to leave Belgrade with anything.

On the plus side Ireland ended their goal drought and looked very comfortable in the opening half, but finishing class was the difference on the night - and Serbia held all the aces.

The Republic went in front through Alan Browne after just 18 minutes but once the Serbs found their rhythm they were always going to deny Kenny a first win as senior manager.

Vlahovic equalised in the 40th minute before second-half substitute Mitrovic killed off the visitors. James Collins poked home to make it 3-2 in the closing stages but there was no dramatic equaliser in store for Kenny’s men.

With so many imponderables, not many observers would have been able to guess the Irish starting line-up and their 3-5-2 formation last night.

Mark Travers made his competitive debut in goal due to injuries to Darren Randolph and Caoimhín Kelleher and had a baptism of fire in the second half.

Shane Duffy and Jeff Hendrick, regulars for so long, were surprise omissions for Ireland’s opener in the Serbian capital.

Duffy has endured a wretched run of form and has been out of the Celtic for over a month.

Even so, you might have thought the manager would put some store in Duffy and Ciaran Clark playing together for a decent chunk of their respective international careers.

Instead, Dara O’Shea, playing regularly with West Bromwich Albion, earned a place in the heart of the Irish defence and performed well enough to justify his inclusion.

Hendrick also paid the ultimate price for a lack of game-time at Newcastle with former U21 Jayson Molumby getting the nod ahead of him and looking like a player Kenny wants to build his midfield around.

Josh Cullen and Alan Browne completed a narrow midfield three with Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens playing as wing-backs.

And up front it was no surprise Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson started.

The Serbs, under new manager Dragan Stojkovic, started last night’s clash as heavy favourites but it was the visitors who looked the livelier of the two sides, and deservedly went in front through Browne.

Critical of his own performances at international level in the build-up to last night’s tie, the 25-year-old attacking midfielder started and finished the move that put Ireland ahead – a goal that also ended the side’s seven-game goal drought.

The Preston NE skipper swept the ball out to Enda Stevens on the left flank before he slipped a pass down the side for Robinson.

Despite being on his weaker left foot, Robinson made space and hung up a brilliant cross to the back post where Browne placed his header past Marko Dmitrovic to find the corner of the net.

Serbia might have dominated possession for the remainder of the half, but they couldn’t find a way past Ireland’s deep-lying backline that became a five out of possession.

Cullen had the onerous task of minding Ajax schemer Dusan Tadic who was posing problems down the inside right channel, but when the ball did come into the Ireland penalty area Coleman, O’Shea and Clarke, forming a back three, were equal to the task.

But the visitors’ problem stemmed from relying too heavily on Connolly and Robinson conjuring something out of nothing up front.

As it was, Serbia kept possession much better and Irish legs began to sag from chasing shadows before the interval.

A series of corners couldn’t breach the Irish defence but when Tadic flicked the ball into the path of Dusan Vlahovic five minutes before the break, it was the first time the home side were through on goal, and the Fiorentina striker slotted the ball coolly past Travers to make it 1-1.

It might have been a different game had Kenny's men held onto their one goal advantage until half-time, but Serbia's tails were up from the restart.

Nikola Milenkovic saw his long range drive breeze past the Republic's right upright before substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic edged the Serbs in front on 68 minutes with an audacious chipped finish after Travers was caught in no-man's land, with Tadic again supplying the killer pass.

The concession of a third goal in the 75th minute was self-inflicted after Josh Cullen gave away cheap possession. The ball was then worked down the right side of the Irish defence before that man Tadic again found Mitrovic who headed the ball past the despairing dive of Travers.

At that point it was game, set and match to the Serbs who had come from behind in stylish fashion, although the Irish made them sweat in the final few minutes when substitute James Collins poked the ball home to make it 3-2 after a defensive mix-up.

There were some pleasing moments from an Irish perspective last night, but still plenty to work on ahead of Saturday's home clash with Luxembourg as a nation awaits the first win under Stephen Kenny. Surely that unenviable record can be put to bed this weekend.

Serbia: Dmitrovic,Milenkovic,Stefan Mitrovic,Pavlovic,Gajic, Lukic,Racic (Maksimovic 63),Mladenovic (Kostic 46), Tadic (Gudelj 78),Vlahovic (Jovic 82), Djuricic (Aleksandar Mitrovic 63). Subs Not Used: Milinkovic-Savic,Ristic,Nikolic,Spajic,Rajkovic, Radonjic,Petkovic.

Booked: Pavlovic.

Goals: Vlahovic 40,Aleksandar Mitrovic 68,75.

Rep of Ireland: Travers,Coleman,O'Shea,Clark (Brady 79),Doherty, Molumby (Hendrick 61),Cullen,Browne (Collins 79),Stevens, Robinson (McClean 79),Connolly (Shane Long 67).

Subs Not Used: Horgan,Christie,Knight,Bazunu,Lenihan,O'Hara,


Goals: Browne 18,Collins 86.

Ref: Davide Massa (Italy).

Republic of Ireland ratings

Mark Travers: A huge ask for Ireland’s third choice ‘keeper last night. He was well protected in the first half and had no chance for Serbia’s equalising goal before half-time, but his footwork for the second and third wasn’t great. 5

Seamus Coleman: Playing his first match under Stephen Kenny, the Everton man was asked to play in a back three and led by example throughout. Might have got more protection from Ireland’s wing-backs at times. 7

Dara O’Shea: Made a confident start and wasn’t afraid to pass the ball out of defence. For Serbia’s first, the WBA defender was beaten by some excellent movement from Dusan Vlahovic. Justified his inclusion ahead of Shane Duffy. 6

Ciaran Clark: Had a decent first game under Kenny but is better in a back four. He was pulled into the left back position a few times and was beaten for Mitrovic’s second goal. 6

Enda Stevens: Playing in a familiar wing-back role, the Sheffield United man might have offered a bit of help to Josh Cullen at times who had a job minding Tusan Tadic and was too far ahead of the ball at times. 5

Matt Doherty: Quite an understated performance from the Tottenham man in his preferred wing-back role. Didn’t do enough to convince even though Serbia dominated possession. 5

Josh Cullen: Arguably had the toughest job of the lot in trying to track Tusan Tadic and did a lot of ugly stuff well in the first half, but struggled in the second period and gave away possession for Serbia’s third goal. 5

Jayson Molomby: Given his lack of game-time with Preston, it was always unlikely he wouldn’t last the game. Worked and tackled hard before being replaced by Hendrick. 6

Alan Browne: After a couple of ropey passes, he emerged as the architect for Ireland’s long-awaited goal. Showed great determination to head the Irish in front, but was chasing shadows for long periods after that. Should start again on Saturday. 6

Aaron Connolly: Playing down the centre, the Brighton man almost caught out the Serb defence a few times but didn’t really have any chances on the night. Pulled up with cramp and was replaced by Shane Long. 6

Callum Robinson: Probably Ireland’s best player on the night. Lively from the first whistle and gained the Serbian defence’s respect early on. Claimed a great assist for Browne’s goal and looked Ireland’s best attacking threat. 7


Jeff Hendrick: Tried to plug holes once the tiring Molomby left the field on 61 minutes. Didn’t convince in the last half hour. 5

Shane Long: Claimed an assist for James Collins’s late goal. Worked hard. 5

Robbie Brady: Busy in the closing stages and did pop the ball into the danger zone that led to Collins’ goal. 5

James McClean: Gave the Irish more width but didn’t have a lot of time to impress. 5

James Collins: An untidy goal but the big Luton striker will take it. 5