The most surprising thing for me watching the RTE coverage of last night’s match was not how the game developed but the disbelief and outrage shown by Eamon Dunphy in his post game analysis, and then his admission, after an admonishment from Liam Brady, that he had learnt a lot. For this was a typical Irish performance with some of the good and all of the bad elements that have become a hallmark of this team since before Martin O’Neill’s time. Good incisive start and goal? Check. Lose our way after scoring and allow the opposition to start dictating? Check. Bang long balls forward, cede possession and ride our luck before eventually conceding at least one? Check. Regroup and start creating chances when we go behind? Check. Equalise and then revert to defensive type? Check. And while I’d hoped that our forward momentum post Euros could be sustained in Serbia, none of what transpired surprised me last night. This is often how we play and considering he’s paid to watch us, you have to ask if he ever pays attention.
On the plus side, I’d have taken a draw before kick off and there’s no doubt that a point away to Serbia in horrendous conditions may well prove to be vital by the end of the campaign. Again, the side proved that they’re very difficult to beat and although we rode our luck on occasion, we shouldn’t forget that the Serbian penalty was clearly a dive. Of course the question is, would we have pushed on looking for a second goal had the score remained at one each or would we have continued to hang on for the one-all draw? And that’s where the frustration comes from because we have shown under O’Neill that we can play reasonable, albeit direct, football when we try to but it seems that doing it when we’re ahead in a game or when we have something to lose is generally beyond us. Whether this is a mental thing or is an instruction from the management is the crux of the matter.
The last couple of hours build up to the game were dominated by talk of whether or not it would go ahead due to the biblical amounts of rain that had been falling on Belgrade the entire day. Rumours of a potential cancellation had obviously reached those of our crew who had made the trip and I’d had a number of texts from Belgrade from the lads looking for updates. So, I was relieved for those who had flights booked back on Tuesday when word came through about an hour and a half before kick off that the game was definitely on.
And more than a little jealous as I confirmed that to the lads and got a few replies confirming that they were on their way to the stadium! The next thing to come through was the team and, to be honest, I had no issues with the eleven selected of Randolph, Ward, Keogh, O’Shea, Coleman, McClean, Whelan, Hendrick, Brady, Walters and Long. Given James McCarthy’s absence through injury, I had thought it unlikely that O’Neill would bring in the likes of Harry Arter for a first competitive start and couldn’t have imagined him staring Wes Hoolahan in an away qualifier like this, especially with the conditions.
It looked to me like a fairly standard 4-5-1 with the potential for Walters to move up beside Long should we look to go 4-4-2. My hope was that Walters and McClean would provide enough width to get good ball into the box while providing defensive cover for Coleman and Ward who should also have had the potential to overlap forward with the 3 central midfielders providing cover in front of the defence. Despite Long being up front on his own, it looked a reasonably attacking team.
Although Serbia had the first attack of the game, Ireland reacted positively and once Brady had cut out a Tadic cross, immediately moved forward with conviction. McClean had gathered possession and his purposeful run was unfairly halted in line with the box on the left hand side. Given the way we play, set pieces were always going to be important and so it proved again as Brady’s delivery was palmed out unconvincingly by the Serbian keeper. John O’Shea was first onto the rebound and knocked it back across the box where after a bit of pinball, it fell to Jeff Hendrick who managed to get over the ball and send a first time volley towards the net. Even then, it looked like the keeper would be favourite to collect it until the ball deflected off Ivanovich and hit the back of the net! One-nil Ireland with barely 3 minutes on the clock!
While there’s always elation once we score, I have to say I’m always happier if we go ahead with a few minutes to go, such as against Italy in the Summer, rather than a few minutes into a game because once we go in front, our approach invariably changes and our mentality seems to instinctively switch to holding what we have when I’d sooner see us continue to do the same things that gave us the lead. We sat back v Sweden in Paris once we scored and conceded. Had we scored earlier against Italy I’ve no doubt we’d have sat back.
And while we stayed competitive in a similar situation for the first half against France back in June before finally unravelling, we couldn’t even get that far on this occasion. It took Serbia maybe 15 minutes after the shock of the goal to start turning the screw as we very quickly started thumping long balls up to Long who wasn’t having much joy in getting anything to stick in the wet conditions. We weren’t getting much off the referee either as he ignored what looked like clear bookings for Ivanovic and Tadic only to then book Ward for a perfectly fair challenge around the 20 minute mark.
By this stage, we were looking a little shaky with Randolph making up for an earlier fluffed attempt to gather a ball by getting down sharply to parry a Kostic shot out of danger. And matters weren’t being helped by Hendrick joining Ward in the book due to the referee’s insistence on booking Ireland players for challenges that looked far more innocuous than the aforementioned Serbian challenges. It’s possible that this was putting a bit of doubt into Irish heads when it came to committing to challenges in the wet conditions but Serbia were well on top by now with our only break from a succession of corners coming when Long managed to get a block in to open up the chance of a break only to lose his footing as he tried to follow the ball forward.
While Serbia weren’t creating many clear cut chances at this stage, we looked nervous at the back and our clearances were bordering on the panicky side with a distinct lack of composure. A similar lack of composure was notable up front with the clearest example being a complete mess of a corner where Hendrick, looking for a return, played it short to Brady only to be caught offside. Given how reliant we are on set pieces, that sort of sloppiness is frustrating in the extreme.
As if to prove the point, a couple of minutes later, another set piece that was delivered first time by Brady almost resulted in a second goal as Walters’ header was kept out unconvincingly by Rajkovic in the Serbia goal. Given how poor their keeper was looking, it was unfortunate that we weren’t able to put him under further pressure and instead finished the first half on the back foot again with more shaky defending leading to the ball bouncing wide off Mitrovic’s shins before he could adjust himself to get a proper shot off. Half time and we were still leading but surely we had to use the break to regroup.
Unfortunately, the second half started in the same way the first had finished with our midfield sitting in front of the back four and handing the ball back to Serbia as soon as we gained possession. I hadn’t expected O’Neill to make any changes before the 60 minute mark, but given how the game was panning out, I was screaming for the likes of Hoolahan or Arter to come on just to get a foot on the ball and try and retain possession. McClean was next to engage in sloppy play as he tried to beat an extra couple of players when a cross was on but as it was, we managed to hold until the hour through luck as much as design with Tadic putting a reasonable chance over the bar before Coleman was next to give away possession cheaply via a foul throw of all things! It was clear that something was coming and instead of the tactical change I’d hoped for once we got beyond the hour, it, unsurprisingly, was a Serbian goal.
Given the lack of conviction in our defending, it was hardly surprising that the goal itself was sloppy in the extreme. An Ivanovic cross was aimed towards Tadic who was being covered by O’Shea. However, O’Shea seemed to have switched off and managed to lose sight of the ball which bounced clear to Kostic who gleefully smacked it beyond Randolph. While this seemed to rouse us from our slumber somewhat, there was still no sign of activity on the bench and although we began to push forward a little more, we really could have gone behind to a Tadic chance hit straight at Randolph before the game’s most controversial moment ensured that we found ourselves 2-1 down.
A ball over the top was chased down by Kostic with Walters in pursuit, only for Kostic to throw himself to the ground as soon as he reached the box. Considering that it was right under the nose of the ref, a booking for a dive could have been expected but instead he pointed to the spot for a penalty which Tadic was only too happy to bury. Immediately afterwards we made our first change with Stephen Quinn coming on for Ward and Brady moving to the back. Initially it didn’t look like much was changing as yet more keystone cops stuff at the back from Randolph this time saw him spill a shot to the Serbian substitute, Pavlovich, who somehow managed to hammer his shot off the crossbar when he had the goal at his mercy. Thankfully, the ball rebounded up and into Randolph’s hands as at 3-1, it surely would have been game over.
This lucky escape seemed to fully snap us out of it and, as we tend to do when we have nothing to lose, we started playing again and had our best spell of the game. First off, Walters put away a great header from a Hendrick cross only to be correctly flagged for a marginal offside. This was Hendrick’s last contribution as he made way for Daryl Murphy on 76 minutes in what would prove to be a pivotal substitution. Being honest, I was still hoping for the likes of Hoolahan to be brought on but given how bad the pitch was cutting up, it was clear that O’Neill had decided that route one was the way to go and at least we were now playing that style with a bit more aggression and commitment.
Serbia were now the ones looking nervous as they found themselves with something to lose. First off, McClean got on the end of a cross but couldn’t keep his header down. Then a kick out from Randolph was flicked on by Murphy to put Shane Long in who stretched his toe onto the ball only for the keeper to touch it out for a corner. And it was from the corner that the pressure finally told with Murphy breaking his duck for Ireland, 23 caps and nine years after his debut! Having waited so long for that first goal, it’s unlikely he’ll get an easier one as he was left totally unmarked from Brady’s corner and rose to make perfect contact with a free header that had too much pace on it for Rajkovic to keep out. Two-all and it now seemed the game might be there to be won in the last ten minutes.
Unfortunately, as I’ve already mentioned, our mindset seems to change as soon as we realise we have something to lose and after one set play which Serbia managed to clear, we began to retreat again. This resulted in more comical defending as with every defender moving out other than Coleman, Serbia played a ball in to Ivanovic whose shot was saved by Randolph, only to ricochet off Walters towards the goal where Coleman, who had played everyone onside, was able to hack clear from right on the goal line. Looking at the replay and given his starting position, I’d give Coleman the benefit of the doubt as I think it’s unlikely he’d have been able to get out in time to catch Ivanovic offside so his decision to move back was vindicated.
However, had Ivanovic beaten Randolph with his initial shot, all that would be immaterial and the chance itself seemed to sum up the absurd nature of the Irish defending throughout the game. The next few minutes dragged by as we sat back further before finally lifting the siege around the 90 minute mark with Walters winning a free. A final substitution with Long being withdrawn for Ciaran Clark to give us another body at the back tightened things up and the game finally finished with Murphy forcing their keeper into giving away possession enabling us to run the clock down and escape with what could be a vital point.
So the positives. Football is a results driven game and it can’t be argued that a draw away to Serbia isn’t a decent result. It’s also not the first time under this management team that we have come back to get points late in games where we have been behind and where we have been very much second best in terms of possession. There’s a steeliness and never say die attitude within the team and they don’t know when they’re beaten. The old adage about a lucky general being better than a good one can be argued but we’ve got results from unconvincing performances often enough now for it not to be put down just to luck. O’Neill is right when he says that other teams in the group will find it hard to come to Belgrade and get results so a part of me says just take the point, put it behind us and move on to the next game against Georgia and the away trip to Moldova next month.
But (and there’s always a but) an element of frustration remains. The fact that they were missing two of their most influential players in Matic and Koralov gave us an advantage that other teams probably won’t have when they come to Belgrade. Also, the players they have coming through from their Under 20 World Cup winners will surely improve during the campaign so getting them this early probably gave us our best shot at bagging three points. They looked iffy at the back when we got at them yesterday and their keeper looked very suspect but really wasn’t put under enough pressure.
And, while the conditions were clearly appalling last night, it was the same for both teams. We seemed to give up on even attempting to play passing football due to the pitch yet Serbia had spells when they knocked it around with ease. To come out of a game with a sum total of 94 completed passes for the team is beyond a joke. I also can’t help but feel that sooner or later our tendency to sit back when we have a lead or are trying to secure a point will come back to bite us. Our inability to manage a game when we go ahead is very worrying.
All that said, we rarely put together back-to-back poor performances and, most recently away to Scotland and Poland in the last campaign, we’ve lost games where we’ve ceded possession like that in the past. It’s great to have a point on the board in advance of the home campaign kicking off and a win against Georgia would put us in a good position going away to Moldova. Having three of the first four games away from home was always a tough start so rather than concentrate on the negatives, let’s chalk up the point and move on.