David Kelly: Escape from victory in the quagmire
Opportunity missed as O'Neill's men concede initiative to shaky Serbs after early goal
Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30
For Ireland, the Balkans has always presented itself as a challenge in psychology as much as a test of footballing credentials.
Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest and Bydgoszcz have all featured on the Irish itinerary in recent years and there has been a temptation to indulge any trip beyond the erstwhile Iron Curtain as exercises in extreme escapology.
Ireland, however, buoyed by the lightness of a French summer, and a belated renewal with the aesthetics of the game, without thieving their renowned aggression, were surely sizing this up as an opportunity for a notable early coup.
Fittingly, the Red Star stadium is overlooked, from on far, by the cathedral of St Sava, known as the Enlightener. Would Ireland forge a similar attitude or retreat into inhibition?
The Serbian supporters showed more devotion to the weather forecast than their national team, less than 10,000 braving the unremitting rain which had begun as a biblical cascade, as promised, six hours earlier.
The opening exchanges offer comedy of slaloming slashes as the ball careers wildly along the sodden turf and it is little surprise that a skimming shot along the surface precedes the unlikeliest of early breakthroughs.
It takes just two minutes and 26 seconds for Ireland to puncture Serbian confidence and, momentarily at least, wildly inflate their own.
Robbie Brady, anointed Ireland's No 10, retains the talismanic influence of the man he replaced but also continues the explosive impact delivered during the summer. His free-kick is perfectly delivered to test the 20-year-old stopper Predrag Rajkovic's nerves on his fourth cap; he pushes the skimming shot from his right to his immediate left where John O'Shea lurks.
The veteran Waterford man returns the danger with swift alacrity and the shell-shocked Serbs rollick like men trying to navigate a sand dune; Aleksandar Mitrovic swings and misses; the ball comes to Jeff Hendrick, who swings and doesn't.
His shot may, it seems from the nearby parish from which we watch in our distant eyrie, have been heading towards or beyond Rajkvovic's right-hand post; Branislav Ivanovic negates the argument by standing aloof as the ball caroms off his leg.
As the net shakes itself of excess water, Ireland shake off any potential for nerves; the small pocket of 300 or so Irish fans dance deliriously as the raindrops begin to cease.
The several thousand Serbian schoolchildren let in for free to bolster the pitiful attendance weep quietly in empathy at the slapdash defending.
Like a man collecting from his first spin at the roulette wheel, Ireland's response to their unanticipated windfall is cheering as the Serbs reel; Mitrovic has one sighter but his kick, high and handsome, is as wild as his last.
Filip Kostic ends Darren Randolph's 18 minutes of relative redundancy by forcing a decent save as Serbia belatedly begin to dictate the tactical pattern.
The wide centre-backs, Ivanovic and Jagos Vukovic, splay diagonal balls which are, usually by the roving Dusan Tadic, in turn delivered to roving wing-backs Antonio Rukavina and Filip Mladenovic..
The ever-churning quagmire of the penalty are guarded by Randolph is a vivid heat map of the action areas in this half-hour; Richard Keogh flaps at a header but the Serbian's touch in front of goal is even more uncertain.
The Irish centre holds with reasonable comfort; Mitrovic is rocked on his heels when a ball reaches him not four yards from the goal; Randolph parries from Mladanovic before Ireland end the half with encouragement.
Irish tackles produce lumps of turf that could light the fires of all the houses in a small townland.
Shane Long, doughty as ever ploughing a lonely, muddy furrow, flashes a header from a Brady free-kick that must be saved; Ireland's No 10 then races back to win a foot-race with Tadic.
Ireland finish with a spring; Serbia are whistled from the fray; their return fails to alter the mood music.
The routine retained the familiarity of Groundhog Day as Ireland's retreat is re-emphasised; and yet, it seemed the more Serbia had the ball, the less ineffective they were with it.
And then, suddenly, as history teaches, implosion from the heart of nowhere.
Ireland doze on the right as Serbia plot another diagonal route to the top of their line; when the ball comes in, Tadic skilfully evades O'Shea and allows Kostic the simplest of finishes.
A half-hour of brinkmanship awaits; Serbia shorten the turmoil by swiftly adding a lead as the diagonal route draws more profit; Ivanovic, 60 yards to Mladenovic from right to left; into Kostic, clattered by an unsettled Walters.
Tadic delivers precise and imperious execution.
Ireland's previous poverty is exposed by their sudden conversion to emergency attack. Stephen Quinn adds energy and with Daryl Murphy an additional focal point, Serbia resume their status as a jumble of nerves.
Murphy bullets a redemptive equaliser from Brady's wand and the game lurches once more as now Ireland press for the definitive lead goal; had they done so earlier, the denouement could have been much more comfortable.
Coleman clears off the line as Irish hearts skip a beat. Both teams slap thighs in frustration when the carnival music stops the shapeless, hapless action.
Hard to know whether to laugh or cry.