Football/Soccer

Gutsy Irish pinch a draw against Serbia as fortune finally shines on Stephen Kenny

Republic of Ireland's manager Stephen Kenny stands for the national anthem last night as he watched his side snatch a draw against Serbia
From Brendan Crossan in Dublin

2022 World Cup Qualifying Group A: Republic of Ireland 1 Serbia 1

THIS was pure daylight robbery – but the Irish will take it. A Serbian own-goal in the dying minutes wasn’t quite what Stephen Kenny’s men deserved, but for sheer spirit and resilience they scored high in last night’s 1-1 draw in Dublin, and they definitely were due some luck on the scoreboard.

The Serbs played with enviable assurance – and should have been four or five goals up - until Callum Robinson’s dangerous cross from the right in the 86th minute ended up in their net.

Serbia goal-scorer Sergej Milinkovic-Savic tried to clear the danger but the ball cannoned off the back of the unsuspecting defender Nikola Milenkovic and it was somehow 1-1.

The 25,415 crowd went wild. Kenny celebrated the scruffy equaliser like it was the winner in the World Cup final.

The PA announcer had the audacity to give the equalising goal to Shane Duffy probably because he was in the general vicinity when the ball ricocheted into the Serbia net from close range.

Midway through the first half, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic gave the visitors a deserved lead – and but for the brilliance of Gavin Bazunu, who was like cling film across the Irish goal-line, making a string of saves, Serbia should really have been out of sight.

Last night's draw will perhaps take some of the heat off the under-pressure Irish manager as they look forward to next month's trip to Azerbaijan.

The Irish have won just one game in 16 outings under Kenny, scoring just 11 goals, four of which came against European minnows Andorra in a friendly and they’ve drawn a blank in nine of those games.

The manager made four changes to the side that stumbled to a 1-1 home draw with Group A minors Azerbaijan. There was no Aaron Connolly in the 23-man squad due to injury, while Jeff Hendrick, Jamie McGrath, Alan Browne and Andrew Omobamidele earned starts.

Seamus Coleman (injured), Troy Parrott, Jayson Molumby were the others who made way from Saturday night’s draw.

Fresh from their comfortable 4-1 home win over Luxembourg on Saturday, in-form Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic was deemed fit enough for last night’s tie despite suffering a broken nose and was the fulcrum of a side packed with Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga players.

Given the respective form lines coming into last night’s qualifier, few anticipated anything other than a Serbia win against a raw, work-in-progress opponent.

All over the park there were mismatches: Preston North End versus Sevilla, Fiorentina versus Brighton, Norwich City versus Werder Bremen.

What summed up last night’s encounter was the diminutive figure of Josh Cullen trying to plug holes in front of his defence against a physically imposing midfield. It was an onerous task.

Backed by a passionate home crowd, Stephen Kenny’s men had some good moments in the opening half – but the Serbs were aching quality.

But the tempo was high from the Irish from the first whistle with Jeff Hendrick, Matt Doherty, Adam Idah and Jamie McGrath looking up for the fight.

It almost went horribly wrong after just five minutes when a momentary lapse in concentration from Shane Duffy allowed Dusan Vlahovic to steal the ball but Gavin Bazunu made himself big and made a smart save to deny the Fiorentina striker.

The Serbs carved pretty patterns in front of the home defence with Sevilla midfielder Nemanja Gudelj picking off two pot shots in quick succession that didn’t trouble Bazunu.

Despite Serbia’s confidence in possession the Republic posed a threat when they pushed forward. James McClean sent over a series of dangerous crosses from the left, Hendrick picked up the pieces of one of them and was desperately unlucky with a clever turn and drilled effort from the edge of the Serbian penalty area that narrowly missed the target.

Not that the home crowd needed rousing as they were up for the occasion even though qualification was already a pipedream long before the Serbs arrived in Dublin for last night’s fifth game in the group.

But Serbia’s attacking threat loomed large. In the 20th minute, Andrew Omobamidele, playing on the right side of a central defensive three, made a brilliant block inside the penalty area – but from the resultant corner-kick, the Serbs went one up.

Skipper Dusan Tadic, a thorn in Ireland’s side in the corresponding fixture back in March, swung over a near-post corner and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s flicked header found the top left-hand corner of Ireland’s net with Bazunu doing well to get an out-stretched hand to the ball.

In the second half the home support feared for the men in green. Mitrovic was denied by Bazunu’s brilliance in the 57th and 60th minutes as the Irish appeared to wilt. But from somewhere – probably from the bench – the Republic of Ireland summoned the energy to drag themselves forward.

Substitute Robinson was key in Ireland’s late revival – and he almost set up the winner for Duffy while Omobamidele’s stoppage-time pile-driver was tipped away by Predrag Rajkovic.

Outclassed for 86 minutes, fortune finally smiled on Stephen Kenny and the gutsy Irish.

Republic of Ireland ratings

Gavin Bazunu: Making his sixth international appearance, the on-loan Portsmouth ‘keeper was the man-of-the-match by a country mile. Made a string of excellent saves and kept the score down. 8

Matt Doherty: The Spurs defender made some telling interceptions and tried to ignite things down the right flank. Pushed himself to the limit in the final quarter. 7

Shane Duffy: Winning his 46th cap, the big Derry man nearly slipped up in the opening minutes. A bit hesitant at times but almost won it at the death with a header. 6

John Egan: The Cork man had his hands full for the entire night and had to be switched on – and he was. 6

Andrew Omobamidele: The highly-rated Norwich City defender interpreted his defensive role brilliantly. Not afraid to act as an auxiliary midfielder and defended well. Unlucky with a great drive late on. 8

Jeff Hendrick: Hit two terrible passes before being withdrawn – but up to that point had one of his better games for quite some time. Was happy to assume the role of the creative hub of the team. Unlucky with one first half effort. 7

Josh Cullen: Emerged from the three games with a fair amount of credit but energy-wise he was a busted flush last night given his exertions against Portugal and Azerbaijan. 5

Jamie McGrath: Some nice footwork and worked hard off Adam Idah but didn’t affect the game in any meaningful way. 5

Alan Browne: Plenty of industry and threatened a couple of times in the first half but they were fleeting moments and was the first Irish player to make way. 5

Adam Idah: The Norwich City target man is making progress on the international scene. Strong and held up the ball but never had any sights of goal. 6

James McClean: Emptied the tank as he always does and some of his crosses were of a high standard. Made a charging run towards his own goal to prevent a certain goal in the second half. 6.5

Subs:

Callum Robinson: Offered a freshness to the attack and pulled the Serb defence wide. It was his cross that led to the equaliser and he almost set up the winner for the Irish. 7

Daryl Horgan: Clever, worked the ball into good areas in the final third. 6

Jayson Molumby: Gives everything and has a bright future at senior international level, but needs games at club level. 6

Conor Hourihane: Lost a couple of possessions but did well with others. 5

James Collins: Didn't see much of the ball. 5

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Football/Soccer