Stephen Kenny’s wait for a first win as Ireland boss continues as his side ultimately came up short in Belgrade, despite a valiant and at times enthralling performance.
Having lost five starters to injury, Kenny named some inexperienced players alongside others who had not played international football in quite some time. With many commenting that it was Ireland’s best all-round performance since the play-off defeat to Slovakia, there are growing signs that the wheel is beginning to turn for the Stephen Kenny project.
Faced with a few big decisions pre-match, Kenny named a bold eleven while also changing the formation. Despite initial confusion caused by the UEFA team sheets, it was obvious that Ireland would play a 3-5-2 for the first time under Kenny.
There were no starts for Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick or Robbie Brady. Twenty one year-old Mark Travers was handed his first competitive start following injuries to Randolph and Kelleher; Ciaran Clark and Seamus Coleman returned to the Irish XI for the first time in 16 months whilst Stevens and Doherty were deployed as wingbacks, with Cullen and Molumby played in a double six. Alan Browne sat just in front of them while Connolly and Robinson played up front.
Ireland began the game on the front foot, winning two early corners. Cullen and Molumby dictated the middle, finding pockets of space between the Serbian lines. Serbia settled into the match after 15 minutes, with Lukic and Tadic forcing Coleman to clear to safety.
Then the opener came. Enough to make any grown Irishman cry – 680 minutes after Duffy hit the net last September, the goal gods looked down kindly on Ireland as Robinson spun past Mitrovic and put in a delightful cross for Alan Browne to head home – Hallelujah. Stephen Kenny’s joyous smile told you all you need to know, the goal drought talk had finally been put to bed.
Serbia held the majority of possession for the half but struggled to create many clear chances, Coleman and O’Shea relieving any pressure that came. Ireland seemed to be heading into a half time lead, until Vlahovic popped up five minutes before the break.
In truth, a frustrating goal to concede. The ever-threatening Tadic flicked a header towards Vlahovic who got in behind O’Shea to equalize, with nothing the debutant Travers could do about it. The goal rattled Ireland, who couldn’t wait for the whistle to come. Clark blocked well from Djuricic before he tested Travers, who saved brilliantly as the sides left the pitch for half-time.
The second half began much like the first. Connolly missed the target after a fantastic cross from Robinson. Connolly, who was largely kept quiet by the Serbian back line, was taken down in the area just before the hour mark. With no VAR in operation in Belgrade, Ireland were harshly denied a spot kick as the referee pointed for a corner.
Almost immediately down the other end, Ireland escaped a foul of their own. Coleman slipped and in doing so brought down Vlahovic however the Donegal man escaped punishment as Ireland cleared again. Both sides traded chances and possession, with O’Shea and Clark going close from corners. Jeff Hendrick replaced Jason Molumby on the hour mark, a change that puzzled many supporters as Molumby was keeping good control of the midfield. Milinkovic’s effort was inches away from putting Serbia a goal up, before Shane Long replaced Connolly for his 86th cap.
Serbia found the breakthrough on 70 minutes. Ireland back three fell asleep for a split second as Tadic put through Mitrovic. The Fulham striker noticed Travers off his line and chipped the Maynooth man from 25 yards out. A small mistake by a young keeper, punished absolutely by a top class forward. One Travers won’t want to see again, but no doubt he’ll learn and be the better for it.
Tadic appeared once again five minutes later and crossed to Mitrovic who leapt above Clark as if he wasn’t there to make it 3-1. Two cruel blows for Ireland after an encouraging performance. Collins, McClean, and Brady were introduced as Kenny tried to salvage something from the contest. With five minutes remaining, Long pounced on a loose header to set up Collins for his first international goal. Despite Brady and McClean sending in hopeful crosses, it was too little too late. Stephen Kenny’s wait for his first win continues, which is expected on Saturday when his team host Luxembourg.
Speaking after the game, Kenny was furious with the penalty decision & absence of VAR in the ground:
We have had a blatant penalty rejected. We’ve watched it back and Aaron’s touched the ball away and the player has fouled him. That’s a penalty to go to 2-1 up and we’re not losing the game at 2-1 up in the second half, that’s for sure. We’re not saying we definitely would have won it, but I don’t see us losing it. That’s a very pivotal moment in the game. How could there be VAR for some matches and not others?
That said, Kenny commended his team’s performance. With five starters absent and a goalkeeper making his competitive debut, all things considered the team is moving in the right direction.
I think the players were terrific. Normally when you concede three goals it’s the result of giving up six or seven chances, but they scored with their first chance. That said I’m really disappointed to lose that game.
Ireland host Luxembourg on Saturday night. Securing three points is crucial, while a comprehensive victory would help silence the critics until next September’s qualifiers. The signs are there the goals will come. Fans will return to the Aviva one day to see first hand that Stephen Kenny is building something unprecedented in recent Irish footballing history.