Ireland's World Cup hopes in tatters following defeat to Serbia at the Aviva
Ireland 0 Serbia 1
So the play-offs it will have to be then if the Republic of Ireland are to reach Russia.
For all the intensity, commitment and domination shown at last by Martin O’Neill’s men last night, Serbia leave Dublin with three vital points, top spot and automatic qualification virtually secured.
Hal Robson-Kanu and Aaron Ramsey's late goals for Wales in Moldova mean Chris Coleman’s side now command second place in Group D and the final showdown in Cardiff next month is likely to decide who will go into the European lottery draw.
Former Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov thumping finish secured victory for the former Yugoslavian republic and with just Austria away and Georgia at home to negotiate, they look certain to be in Russia now.
Ireland’s fate will surely depend on the final night in Wales. Before that they have bottom-placed Moldova to play in the Aviva, on the same night Coleman’s men must travel to Tbilisi, where this campaign has unravelled.
There was a significant improvement on Saturday’s performance in Georgia - as there had to be - but ultimately for all they were the dominant and better side last night, Ireland finished empty-handed.
Even with Wes Hoolahan back in the side, when they did have possession and opportunities to create chances from wide areas, they missed their targets too often.
Buoyed by a near-full Aviva’s raucous atmosphere, Ireland started with the intensity O’Neill had demanded and James McClean earned a rebuke from Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for two robust challenges in the first six minutes.
Yet it was the visitors who had the first meaningful chances, both blocked by Shane Duffy who headed a Kolarov free-kick over the bar after throwing himself at a firm drive from Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic in the opening two minutes.
Ireland had the ball in the Serbian net after ten minutes and Duffy looked to have scored his second early goal in as many games, when he nodded home a Robbie Brady centre. The opening bars of the White Stripes’ celebratory song were even ringing out before the stadium DJ and the majority of the home crowd realised the linesman’s flag was correctly raised against the Brighton defender.
A neat Irish move brought the first real save of the night for the visitors’ keeper Vladimir Stojkovic who needed a firm hand to turn Shane Long’s ambitious drive over his bar after a neat exchange involving the Southampton striker and skipper for the night Jon Walters.
While O’Neill played the role of cheerleader, chief motivator and ballboy in the technical area, and the crowd kept up the intensity of the din, Ireland continued to keep Serbia in their own half.
But their coach Slavoljub Muslin seemed content to deploy seven men at times to quell any threat from the home side. And Ireland actually created very little.
In fact the best chance of the first-half fell to Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic who, thankfully for Ireland, was unable to make sufficient contact to Filip Kostic’s cross allowing Darren Randolph to make a scrambled one-handed save.
The Middlesbrough keeper’s distribution may have been significantly out of sorts but his handling all night was excellent. A minute into the second-half he also gathered Dusan Tadic’s long-range effort comfortably.
Ten minutes before half-time Brady and Hoolahan finally combined to create an opening with their intricate passing but Nikola Maksimovic was alert to boot the ball to safety.
Man of the match David Meyler’s nutmeg on Kostic in the corner raised the roof again before half-time but the Serb winger retaliated with a run and cross from same area to create an opening for Antonio Rukavina who missed the target with a awful shot.
The killer moment came in the 55th minute when Ireland three times failed to clear from a Serbian corner. First Brady’s weak header created difficulties before Stephen Ward twice struggled to connect with a loose ball, which eventually fell to Long’s Southampton team-mate Tadic.
His quick pass found Kostic, he rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area and Kolarov ran in to thump the ball home, despite the desperate dives from Walters and Cyrus Christie and via Randolph’s despairing dive and the underside of the bar.
O’Neill decided Hoolahan was a spent force by the hour and sent on Daryl Murphy in his stead for the final third but the loss of the hosts’ playmaker coincided with a brief loss of belief from the terraces.
Serbia’s comfort disappeared and their composure was tested in the last 20 minutes when Nikola Maksimovic was sent off by Cakur for a foul on Long as the pair tussled and chased a long punt up the middle.
Visiting captain Branislav Ivanovic summed up their frustration as he attempted to move Brady’s free-kick position in the aftermath of the dismissal, but once the wall was settled the Burnley midfielder fired straight into it anyway. He was then booked as Serbia countered and will miss the Moldova game. It is his fourth caution of the campaign.
Faced with ten men, Ireland became more desperate, with Meyler, McClean, Christie and sub Conor Hourihane all shooting aimlessly when calmness was required, much to O’Neill and the crowd’s despair.
They did have one chance to level five minutes from time when the ball finally broke to Murphy in the area but Stojkovic pulled off a fine save.
The game ended when Christie headed a corner over, with Randolph in the box as additional support. And on Cakir’s final whistle, most of Ireland’s players fell to their knees, while the Serbs celebrated in a huddle and, for one moment at least, the Aviva was silent.
Cakir turned down a possible Ireland penalty when Murphy appeared to be pulled back by Jagos Vukovic in the 76th minute.
Substitute Callum O'Dowda whipped a ball into the area and as Murphy attempted to reach the ball, the Olympiakos defender prevented him from doing so, and despite Irish protests from players and fans, the Turkish official waved away the appeals. Christie then put the loose ball into the side netting.
Ireland: Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward (O'Dowda 72), Meyler (Hourihane 79), Hoolahan (Murphy 62), Brady, McClean, Walters, Long. Booked: McClean, Brady.
Serbia: Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Maksimovic, Vukovic, Rukavina, Milojevic, Matic, Tadic (Gudelj 81), Kolarov, Kostic (S.Mitrovic 72), A.Mitrovic (Prijovic 79). Booked: Stojkovic, Rukavina. Sent off: Maksimovic.
Referee: C.Cakir (Turkey)