James Crombie/INPHO Robbie Brady looking devastated as Serbia celebrate their goal.
# Down but not out
Improvements made but Ireland's World Cup hopes take a major hit as 10-man Serbia claim narrow win
Martin O’Neill’s side were handed their first defeat of the current qualifying campaign in Dublin.

Ireland 0
Serbia 1

Ben Blake reports from the Aviva Stadium

IRELAND’S CHANCES OF reaching the 2018 World Cup were severely dented tonight as the 10 men of Serbia came away from the Aviva Stadium with a 1-0 victory.

With a full house roaring them on, the Boys in Green took the game to their opponents but conceded on 55 minutes through a well-struck Aleksandar Kolarov goal.

Ultimately, that proved to be the winner. Despite having Nikola Maksimovic sent off midway through the second half, the visitors held on as Ireland went long in search of an equaliser.

The result leaves them out of the qualification places in Group D — third behind Serbia and Wales — going into the final two qualifiers next month.

Needing a much-improved performance after his team were out-played by Georgia in Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Tbilisi, Martin O’Neill opted to drop Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter from his midfield.

In came Hull City’s David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan as Ireland switched to 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Captain Jon Walters joined Shane Long as part of a two-pronged front line.

Visiting manager Slavoljub Muslin, whose side sat top of the group after taking 15 points from seven matches, made two changes to the team that dismantled Moldova over the weekend.

reland players observe a minutes applause for late Ireland fan John 'The Bear' Dowling James Crombie / INPHO Players and fans observe a minute's applause for late Ireland fan John 'The Bear' Dowling. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The game was seconds old when the Serbians strung together their first attack. Nemanja Matic was fed the ball at the edge of the box and saw his first-time shot blocked by the body of Shane Duffy.

But it was Ireland who set the tone in the early stages. They pressed from the front — with Hoolahan not allowing Matic time on the ball. The passing was crisp and, whereas you barely saw a boot put in against Georgia, there was a real bite in their tackling.

Ireland enjoyed an excellent start and, after scoring his first international goal on Saturday, Duffy had the ball in the back of the net on 10 minutes.

A Robbie Brady short corner was played to Hoolahan and he completed the one-two before the Burnley man whipped a cross into the danger area. Duffy nodded home but the referee’s assistant rightly raised his flag for offside.

Shortly after that, an Irish counter attack ended in Long’s speculative effort being tipped over the bar by Vladamir Stojkovic.

Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic had six goals in qualifying going into the game, and he forced Ireland’s number one into a good stop just after the half-hour mark.

Filip Kostic cut the ball back and the striker diverted it on target but Darren Randolph was well-placed to tip the attempt away.

The tempo was ferocious and Hoolahan showed just why fans are left baffled whenever he’s overlooked, while also Meyler had a fine first half — working hard to win back possession and efficient with the ball at his feet.

Republic of Ireland v Serbia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Niall Carson Hoolahan turns Serbia's Dusan Tadic. Niall Carson

Serbian full-back Antonio Rukavina found himself in the opposing box but shot over on his weaker right foot after the ball had played back from the end line.

After the break, Ireland restarted with the same rhythm and continued to threaten. Long cut inside and had a pop but Stojkovic was equal to it.

They may have been the better side for the first 55 minutes, but Ireland then cruelly found themselves behind. The ball was worked across the box and Kostic helped it on to the onrushing Kolarov, who lashed a strike in off the underside of the bar with Randolph well beaten.

Now chasing the game, O’Neill chose to withdraw Hoolahan heading into the final third and Daryl Murphy was introduced. That switch saw Walters drop into midfield.

Cuneyt Cakir shows a red card to Nikola Maksimovic Morgan Treacy / INPHO Nikola Maksimovic is shown a red card. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

And Ireland’s cause was boosted on 68 minutes as their opponents went down to 10 men. A long pass upfield fell to Murphy and Maksimovic swung a leg out to bring down the Nottingham Forest striker on the edge of the box.

With the numerical advantage, O’Neill threw on Callum O’Dowda for Stephen Ward and Brady slotted in at left full-back. As the home side pushed on, Meyler sent a rising effort wide of the mark and there were shouts for an Irish penalty waved away by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir when Jagos Vukovic appeared to be all over Murphy.

The final minutes were a scrappy affair as Serbian defended for their lives. Vukovic pulled up injured but, with three substitutions already made, the Olympiacos defender was sent back on to loiter around up front by Muslin.

Murphy’s drilled effort was blocked by Stojkovic and Hourihane dragged his shot wide as the game approached 90 minutes, and the leveller never came.

IRELAND: Randolph; Christie, Clark, Duffy, Ward (O’Dowda 72); Meyler (Hourihane 79), Brady, Hoolahan (Murphy 62), Walters (c), McClean; Long.

SERBIA: Stojkovic; Rukavina, Ivanovic (c), Maksimovic, Vukovic, Kolarov; Matic, Milivojevic; Tadic (Gudelj 81), A Mitrovic (Prijovic 79), Kostic (S Mitrovic 73).

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