Daryl Murphy leveller rescues Ireland after sloppy performance
Serbia 2 Ireland 2
Ireland made Belgrade a tougher place to come with a shaky display, but they still escaped with a point from an error-strewn game that neither side did enough to win.
Sub Daryl Murphy came off the bench to break his international duck at just the right moment for Martin O'Neill, who hailed "a great point".
Hindsight might well prove that view to be correct but the chaotic nature of a scrappy affair on a substandard pitch makes it difficult to get enthused about the outcome.
There were parallels with the loss to France in the summer as an early lead was followed by the concession of two quick second-half goals to turn a promising situation into a nightmare.
To their credit, Ireland responded well and good substitutions from O'Neill delivered a point. But the performance lacked the assurance that was visible at the Euros.
Still, this phase of the campaign is about staying in contention and O'Neill was satisfied with the outcome.
He views it as the beginning of another journey and dismissed any suggestion of missed opportunity.
Serbia away sounds intimidating, but local indifference gave this occasion a different feel. The Marakana was sparsely populated with heavy rain that briefly put the match in doubt affecting the walk-up crowd.
Football fans in Serbia have been worn down by disappointments at senior level and they need to be convinced that it's worth turning out in bigger numbers.
Their team's start justified the actions of the stayaways. Ireland kicked off with the same purpose as their last competitive game in Lyon and got a comparable reward by opening the scoring in the third minute.
James McClean's invention was the genesis, drawing a foul that led to a free-kick. When Robbie Brady's unremarkable effort was weakly parried away by rookie keeper Predrag Rajkovic, a combination of a John O'Shea cross and a Shane Long touch paved the way for a Jeff Hendrick volley that clipped Branislav Ivanovic on its way into the net. The £10.5m man was also scoring his first Irish goal.
It gave Ireland a lead that they carried to the interval. They had ropey moments along the way, with Serbia's new 3-4-3 shape giving the white shirts some problems.
Mainly, it was in wide areas where they often had a man over.
O'Neill had opted for what ended up being closer to a 4-5-1 with McClean and Jon Walters pegged back to try and help full-backs Stephen Ward and new captain Seamus Coleman.
Hamburg's Filip Kostic operated on the left of the hosts' front three and he gave Coleman and Walters problems but, despite some good possession, they lacked real assurance.
"I thought we were fine at half-time," said O'Neill, who defended his side's approach. "While it might look to you that we sat in, we just couldn't get the ball.
"They had a lot of possession, and they were knocking it around, but we were not in serious danger."
Kostic did force a stop from Darren Randolph, and Coleman did clear off the line when the Irish keeper lost control of one situation, yet it was grim fare on an awful surface. "I don't think it suited either team," said O'Neill.
Ireland had threatened to double their lead, with a Walters header from a Brady delivery exercising Rajkovic.
Serbia never looked entirely comfortable at the back, so there were reasons for Irish encouragement.
The second half kicked off with an uneventful period, and Serbian coach Slavoljub Muslin - who criticised his side's opening 45 - withdrew Aleksandar Mitrovic on the hour mark, in search of some inspiration. Copenhagen's Andrija Pavlovic was dispatched into the fray.
Ireland continued to be wasteful on the ball and they were eventually punished, although the goal they conceded was hardly a product of incessant Serbian pressure.
Instead, it was a routine cross from Branislav Ivanovic that was dealt with poorly as Dusan Tadic wriggled away from O'Shea and Coleman got lured to the ball, leaving space behind for Kostic to convert.
The goal gave Serbia belief and, suddenly, Ireland looked properly rattled. Seven minutes later, they were behind.
Ref Viktor Kassai had angered Ireland by refusing to book Serbians for some earlier fouls and he was in the visitors' bad books again when he gave the hosts a penalty.
The clever Kostic invited contact as Walters chased him back into the box and his theatrical response resulted in a spot-kick. Tadic slotted it away.
"The referee was always going to give it," said O'Neill.
It could have gotten even worse, with a fumble from Randolph presenting Pavlovic with a glorious chance which he smacked against the bar.
O'Neill looked to his bench and introduced Stephen Quinn for Ward, a switch that relocated Brady to left-full.
Next came Murphy for Hendrick. The reshuffle worked and Ireland lifted the tempo and dominated.
First, a Walters header was chalked off by the linesman, and then McClean should have levelled with a close-range header that sailed over the bar. Long wasted a better opportunity when he outpaced his pursuers and poked goalwards, with Rajkovic pushing it behind.
That break gave Ireland their equaliser as Brady's devilish delivery was convincingly dispatched by Murphy. A coherent five-minute spell had exposed Serbian inadequacies.
But it was the natives who showed the greater desire to go in search of a winner as Ireland looked heavy-legged and dropped deep again.
The frantic nature of proceedings was summed up by a comical scramble that culminated in Coleman playing Ivanovic onside but then finding himself in the right place to clear to safety when the Chelsea man's shot was blocked by Randolph before rebounding goalwards off Walters.
White shirts wanted the final whistle, and the mindset was summed up by Ciaran Clark coming in for the injured Shane Long in stoppage-time.
O'Neill was thrilled with the point, but the performance has left significant room for improvement.