James Crombie/INPHO Shane Duffy and John Egan celebrate the equaliser.
# familiar scoreline
Hapless Serbia own-goal and Bazunu heroics earn Ireland late draw
A truly hilarious own-goal earned Ireland their best result of the qualification campaign to date.

Republic of Ireland 1

Serbia 1

A NIGHT WHEN Irish fans could at last roar away any lingering diffidence of the pandemic and once again feel the blood squirt through their veins, as Ireland proved there is very much life left in the Stephen Kenny era. 

Their qualifying campaign is pretty much shot, but we knew it was dead months ago so, don’t worry, this was one of the good 1-1 draws. 

Ireland looked like being overwhelmed by a patently superior Serbia for much of this game, but were rescued repeatedly by their remarkable teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, whose string of saves kept Ireland alive to profit from a truly hapless Serbian own goal late on. 

Ireland finished by much the stronger, however, and ended by basking in the acclaim of a deeply satisfied crowd. A banner unfurled in the singing section pre-game read, ‘In Kenny We Trust’; the point did not need to be made at full-time. 

The opening minutes, however, were an exercise in survival for Ireland, as Serbia pinned them back. Mitrovic tried his luck against Omobamidele while the near-herculean Dusan Vlahovic physically dominated John Egan, leaving Dusan Tadic to drop into space ahead of Shane Duffy.

Trooping off at half-time, Duffy wore the weary look of a man dragged uncomfortably all over the field. 

But for all of Serbia’s attacking quality, it was Ireland who came close to once again authoring their own problems in the opening minutes, as Duffy miscontrolled a pass in his penalty area, forcing a splayed Bazunu to deny Vlahovic, the first of his hero acts.

Ireland looked in danger of being suffocated by the Serbian press, and again it was Bazunu to whom they looked to be steadied: he adapted by cutting out his short goal-kicks and floating gorgeous irons to the Irish wing-backs. 

It helped to calm the nerves. 

Ireland grew in confidence, passing around the back in the hoping of creating some space around the Serbian midfield, and occasionally, it worked: Cullen found space for an attack that ended with Jeff Hendrick rifling a volley narrowly wide from the edge of the box. 

But just as Ireland had settled, Serbia knocked them out of their stride. They sliced Ireland open down their left, with Omobamidele doing superbly to shuttle across and block Mitrovic’s shot from within the six-yard box. Serbia scored from the resulting corner, however, as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic steered a terrific header beyond Bazunu to the far top-hand corner. 

gavin-bazunu-and-shane-duffy-with-strahinja-pavlovic-and-nikola-milenkovic James Crombie / INPHO Gavin Bazunu in full flight. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The Irish ‘keeper contorted in the air and got a hand to it: had it been a firmer wrist it would have been one of the more outrageous saves seen in this stadium. Bazunu did block everything that came his way from there on to half-time, throwing himself to his left to bat away a Mitrovic volley from Vlahovic’s Niall Quinn-style knockdown. 

Ireland hung in there and fed off scraps in attack, with Jamie McGrath and Josh Cullen winning free-kicks that went to naught. 

Ireland began more assertively in the second half, but their attacks consisted of crosses and didn’t yield a chance of note. They might have when Alan Browne ghosted into the back post completely unmarked, but McClean’s ball from the left was overhit. 

Serbia, by stark contrast, had the quality to carve Ireland open at will, and again Bazunu’s was the only resistance. A lightning Serbian interchange forced him to block Mitrovic’s penalty-box shot, and minutes later he somehow managed to react as Mitrovic stabbed a cross goalward from the penalty spot. 

Ireland – perhaps held back by their fragile confidence – looked reluctant to commit too many men forward in chasing the game, but they were ultimately bayed on by the crowd. Serbia reacted by swapping right wing-back Djuricic for Nemanja Radonjic, whose pace gave them a lethal edge on the counter attack. 

One three-versus-two break ended in, you guessed it, another fabulous Bazunu save. Radonjic forced the teenager’s only mistake: teasing him into sprinting out of his box for a pass he couldn’t collect. McClean saved a certain goal by sprinting in retreat. 

Ireland built methodically midfield but were finding it exceedingly difficult to even get into the Serbia penalty area, let down by a calamity of heavy touches and misplaced passes, Daryl Horgan’s clumsy touch when found in space on the edge of the box. 

The crowd submerged their frustration beneath their desperate need for a goal, and the loudest roar of the night met Doherty’s winning of a corner. Ireland, unbelievably, played it short and made a total hames of it; within seconds Bazunu made yet another superb save. 

The crowd were growing frustrated at Ireland’s short and patient build-up; at one point they sent Egan and Duffy forward for a free-kick on the halfway line… and ended up playing it back to Bazunu. Duffy slung his head in annoyance. 

And then, the very first time Ireland appeased the crowd by putting the ball in the box, it was cosmically – and comically – rewarded: Shane Duffy’s connection was poor but his presence was utterly bewildering, addling Serbia to the point of implosion. Malinkovic-Savic swiped at the ball and saw it cannon haplessly off Nikola Milenkovic for a truly hilarious own goal and, according to stats, the first jammy bit of luck to go Stephen Kenny’s way since Opta began. 

The comedy continued as the stadium announcer gave the goal to Duffy. 

Kenny almost instantly saw another bit of fortune go his way, as Gudelj looped a mad free-kick from the halfway line off Bazunu’s crossbar. 

Ireland, though, looked totally liberated by their abnormal fortune, and finished the game superbly, with Omobamidele forcing Rajkovic into a flying save from 20 yards. It was Ireland who ended the game looking most like scoring, but they will be content to end an absurdly melodramatic series of games on a high note. 

Because with most of the endless discourse around this team and its manager, it’s the most recent feeling that counts the most. 

The narrative going into this game was that Stephen Kenny Needed A Win: like all other Irish managers before him, all he really needed was a 1-1 draw. 

Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; Matt Doherty; Andrew Omobamidele, Shane Duffy (captain), John Egan; James McClean; Josh Cullen (Jayson Molumby, 65′), Jeff Hendrick (Conor Hourihane, 78′), Alan Browne (Callum Robinson, 57′); Jamie McGrath (Daryl Horgan, 66′), Adam Idah (James Collins, 78′)

Serbia: Predrag Rajkovic; Filip Djuricic (Nemanja Radonjic, 69); Milos Veljkovic, Nikola Milenkovic, Strahinja Pavlovic; Filip Kostic; Nemanja Gudelj, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic; Dusan Tadic (Nemanja Maksimovic, 82′); Dusan Vlahovic (Luka Jovic, 69′), Aleksander Mitrovic 

Referee: Jose Maria Sanchez (Spain)

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