Serbia displaying sufficient to show Eire can nonetheless attain Russia
The Boys in Green suffered a 1-0 defeat in Dublin but an improved performance from Martin O’Neill’s side shows that qualification is still possible
Much has been made of Martin O’Neill’s claim that the Balkan side are technically a much better team than the Boys in Green in the run-up to the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualification against Serbia. It’s a line that Irish managers have long trespassed. Giovanni Trapattoni uses agricultural football to get results when he was in charge before O’Neill.
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This was the excuse the former Northern Ireland international used to defend his side’s poor performance against Georgia when they only managed a 1-1 draw with a team outside the top 100. The same story was used to prepare fans for Serbia’s visit to Dublin. According to O’Neill, Ireland couldn’t play slick-passing football because it simply had no players. But on Tuesday night they did just that.
Ireland looked like a completely different side against Serbia, largely thanks to the addition of 35-year-old ball-playing midfielder Wes Hoolahan and the return to a diamond midfield instead of the 4-5-1 played at Tblisi, Hoolahan took a little longer than an hour, because he says he can no longer play as long as he used to, which is also evident at the club level at Norwich City. During the 62 minutes he was on the field, he helped Ireland improve their game. The Boys in Green passed the ball well, found space far, and Hoolahan’s ability to keep the ball in the opposing half helped the possession stats stay at 50-50.
Despite Ireland’s best efforts, they didn’t really test goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic while Hoolahan was on the field. Shane Duffy had the ball in the net after a set piece but was offside as free kicks and corners were the best chance to score. When a goal was scored, Filip Kostic managed to find Aleksandar Kolarov nearby before the Zenit defender shot home with force.
Hoolahan was replaced soon after, and O’Neill decided to send Daryl Murphy out and switch to a more direct style of play. Murphy’s strength nearly broke him just minutes after his introduction, but he was taken out by Nikola Maksimovic when he tried to break and referee Cuneyt Cakir had no choice but to issue a red card. Against 10 men Ireland continued to search for the long ball for Shane Long, whose tireless running caused problems for Serbia.
After Ireland scored a late goal against 10 men, O’Neill went broke. Great defender Duffy was sent forward in hopes that his size and strength could make a difference. The cynical game played by the visitors helped turn the clock down, much to the frustration of the home crowd, but despite all their hard work, the boys in Green failed to get the extra man counted. After Wales’ goal in Moldova, Ireland slipped to third in Group D as they never equalized.
Ireland are just one point behind Wales with only two games left and travel to Cardiff knowing that a win could take them to the promised playoff country unless Group D features the worst runner-up side. With their excellent performance in a disappointing loss to Serbia, O’Neill’s side should have nothing to fear from Chris Coleman’s side. You have proven yourself tech-savvy to play an attractive passing game. Now all you need is the goals.