Wednesday 22 November 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Any post-mortem needs to go beyond this defeat to Serbia

Ireland 0 Serbia 1

Aleksandar Kolarov, left, and Branislav Ivanović of Serbia celebrate after the FIFA World Cup Qualifier Group D match between Republic of Ireland and Serbia at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Aleksandar Kolarov, left, and Branislav Ivanović of Serbia celebrate after the FIFA World Cup Qualifier Group D match between Republic of Ireland and Serbia at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
A Robbie Brady free-kick hits the wall moments after Serbia had been reduced to 10 men. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The road from Vienna to here has been paved with disappointment.

Ireland's players wake up this morning knowing that they need an extraordinary finish to their World Cup qualifying campaign to be involved in next summer's proceedings in Russia.

They can take little solace from the fact this was probably their best display of this year, even though there was a distinct absence of composure in the dying stages against a Serbian side reduced to ten men for the final quarter.

The problem for Martin O'Neill is that the failings of previous games had reduced the margin of error. Ireland found themselves in a do-or-die situation here because of self-inflicted wounds; they have taken three points from a possible 12 since their famous success in Austria last November.

With three points in the bag from Tbilisi, this result could have been tolerated. Now O'Neill's men are in the situation where they need six from next month's double-header with Moldova and Wales to finish second in Group D.

The killer is that even that may not be enough for a play-off due to the vagaries of FIFA's qualifying system which mean that the second-placed side with the lowest points tally misses out completely. One point from the past week has increased Ireland's chances of being in that position. O'Neill still feels a perfect finish might just be enough.

Aleksandar Kolarov fires Serbia into the lead past Darren Randolph. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Aleksandar Kolarov fires Serbia into the lead past Darren Randolph. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Any post-mortem needs to go beyond this game, although the manner in which they lost their direction in the dying stages was revealing. Wes Hoolahan was missed but O'Neill said he was only able to last an hour due to a groin issue. There were some boos when Daryl Murphy was called into replace him although ironically enough his presence drew a red card.

But the one-dimensional approach relies on good fortune whereas Ireland had kicked off this game with a strategy that had a bit more imagination.

It was rocked by a Serbian goal after half-time and they never quite recovered control. By the end, Irishmen were queuing up to send speculative efforts from distance into the stands.

O'Neill was exasperated by that, admitting that it highlighted a lack of quality. "You have to play with your head and keep the ball alive," he sighed.

The code to unlock the door was missing. Robbie Keane even got a mention, which offered an insight on what he felt was missing.

The evening had started positively for Ireland with a team selection that hinted at the failings of Tbilisi. Hoolahan and David Meyler were brought in for Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter with Hoolahan providing the guile and Meyler the energy to cover any gaps left by adventure in the reversion to the diamond system that was deployed at the business end of the Euro 2016 campaign. James McClean and Robbie Brady were left and right respectively in the centre with Jon Walters and Shane Long up top From the outset, Ireland had a purpose.

Hoolahan's value was clear, for he gives Ireland players options on the ball. The natives mixed a direct approach with tidy passages of play and a high defensive line urged the players ahead to really probe.

If anything summed up the first half, it was a passage of play in the 24th minute when from a routine enough midfield situation, Brady fed the overlapping Cyrus Christie who bombed into the space and sent a cross into the area where three Irish bodies were waiting. An unfortunate ricochet took it away from Hoolahan who had gone forward in support of the front pair.

There were risk attached and Ireland didn't help themselves by giving away some frees in dangerous positions with an aggressive approach riding a fine line.

Mitrovic falls to the ground in an incident in which Robbie Brady was booked. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Mitrovic falls to the ground in an incident in which Robbie Brady was booked. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY/SPORTSFILE

Yet the Aviva Stadium crowd were responding to it, with Meyler producing the moment of the half with a nutmeg at the corner flag to deceive Filip Kostic after tracking back to win possession.

Serbia grew into the game, though, with Aleksandar Mitrovic a busy presence in a tit-for-tat battle with his Newcastle team-mate Ciaran Clark.

He slipped into space for the best chance of the half that was created by Kostic and drew a save from Randolph.

For all that Ireland showed ambition, they found it hard to really get behind Serbia's three centre-halves.

Hoolahan came closest following a quick pass from Brady and was closed down but the intention was there. Christie's long throw was still called upon as a weapon and a set-piece resulted in a disallowed Shane Duffy goal rightly being chalked off for offside.

There was variety, though, and that represented progress. The half-time whistle was greeted enthusiastically.

But the optimism would be drained inside ten minutes from a sucker punch that had followed some Irish half chances.

Concentration levels lapsed with McClean flapping at a routine header and Serbia working the ball across the area where Christie was drawn inside and the clever Kostic spotted it to feed a pass that wasn't anticipated quickly enough by Walters with Aleksandar Kolarov darting in behind to blast a left footer past Darren Randolph with the help of the woodwork.

Irish bodies were slow to rise with the disappointment hard to stomach. O'Neill went for an unpopular solution by calling Hoolahan ashore to make up what was effectively a bruise brothers front three with Murphy, Walters and Long.

An uninspiring passage followed until a lifeline was delivered from a punt, Serbian indecision and a professional foul on Murphy by Nikola Maksimovic which was punished by Turkish ref Cuneyt Cakir.

Cyrus Christie rifles a shot into the sidenet. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Cyrus Christie rifles a shot into the sidenet. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The crowd were lifted but Ireland's eagerness to chase the game came at a price when Brady and McClean picked up bookings that rule them out of Moldova's visit; a ludicrous dive from Mitrovic did for Brady who was moved to left full for the conclusion with Callum O'Dowda introduced to add width. Aiden McGeady's loss to injury was keenly felt here.

Conor Hourihane was then summoned for Meyler after a valid penalty shout when Vukovic impeded Murphy in the area. "The players are adamant it was a penalty," O'Neill said.

There were moments, however, where Ireland might well have benefited from an additional midfielder instead of a third attacker.

Subtlety was lacking to expose to utilise the numerical advantage and there was more than a touch of hit and hope about a selection of the deliveries into the area. When Vukovic suffered an injury, Serbia were effectively down to nine with all their changes made but their boss Slavoljub Muslin pointed out that Ireland didn't hurt them too much in this period.

His troops frustrated the South Stand patrons by wasting every second they could with goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, a 34-year-old veteran, using all of his experience.

They were aided Ireland's trigger-happy tendencies and the smarter side dug in to professionally exploit the goal they had in their back pocket.

Ireland were in control of their destiny after three minutes in Tbilisi. September 2017 will be defined by what happened next.

Ireland - Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward (O'Dowda 72); Meyler (Hourihane 78); Brady, Hoolahan (Murphy 60), McClean; Walters, Long.

Serbia - Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Maksimovic, Vukovic; Kolarov, Matic, Milivojevic, Rukavina; Tadic, A Mitrovic (Prijovic 78), Kostic (S Mitrovic 73)

Ref- C Cakir (Turkey}

Irish Independent

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