Ex-Southampton star key as Ireland ultimately outclassed in crunch World Cup qualifier

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Dusan Tadic produced a hat-trick of assists as Serbia earned a vital victory.

Updated Thu 8:53 AM

1. Serbia’s greater quality ultimately tells as Tadic excels

AT TIMES last night, it felt like Serbia had an extra player.

This sense of superiority was largely due to the talent and footballing intelligence of 32-year-old Ajax star Dusan Tadic.

The former Southampton man was a constant thorn in the side of the Irish team, producing a hat-trick of assists and generally dictating the play.

Afterwards, Irish boss Stephen Kenny pointed to the Serbian star’s influence, telling RTÉ: “They had a period in the second half and in the first half, they pushed us back. Tactically, Tadic came right into midfield, both of their number 10s dropped into midfield and overloaded us a little bit.”

Ireland simply do not have a player capable of providing that creative edge in the final third and it ultimately was a key difference between the sides.

Another important factor was Serbia’s strength in depth. They had the luxury of being able to leave a player of the calibre of Aleksandar Mitrović on the bench thanks in part to the brilliant club form of 21-year-old Fiorentina striker Dušan Vlahović, who has registered 12 goals in Serie A this season.

The Fulham star then had a near-instant impact, after being introduced in the 63rd minute, beating Mark Travers with a glorious chip before heading home his second and the home side’s third to put Serbia in pole position for the victory.

Boss Dragan Stojković also introduced Luka Jovic off the bench — a player who joined Real Madrid for a reported €60 million in 2019, though he is now back on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Ireland, by contrast, had an attack of Aaron Connolly, who has scored just a handful of goals at senior level for Brighton, and Callum Robinson, who has not been able to get into a relegation-threatened West Brom team since 2 February.

While the visitors fought valiantly, the difference in talent and big-game experience ultimately told on the night.

2. Positives in defeat?

The reaction to last night’s frustrating 3-2 defeat against Serbia was decidedly mixed in the Irish camp.

“I would have preferred a decent result and a bad performance,” man-of-the-match Alan Browne said afterwards. “I think there are definitely more positives than negatives to take from that, especially given our previous results and performances, when we haven’t been good enough.”

Team captain Seamus Coleman expressed similar sentiments: “If you concede three goals at this level, chances are, you’ll lose the game. That’s massively disappointing, but there are a lot of positives to take,” the Everton star said.

And so, while the loss means World Cup qualification is already looking like an uphill task, the general outlook feels slightly more optimistic than it had been previously.

So what were the positives?

One obvious and modest success that cannot be underestimated is the fact that Ireland managed two goals away from home against a higher-seeded team. 

Prior to last night, they had failed to score in seven matches under Kenny. In total, they went 677 minutes, or 11 hours and 17 minutes, without finding the net.

It was also the first time they had scored more than one goal in an away fixture since playing Moldova during the Martin O’Neill era in October 2016.

When they finally ended the goal drought, they did so in style, with Alan Browne planting a beautiful header into the corner of the net, after a well-worked Irish move.

James Collins’ opportunistic late second will provide further confidence to the team going forward, even though it proved no more than a consolation on the night and extended the winless run under the new management to nine games (and 10 if you include the Mick McCarthy era), while it is now almost two years since their last competitive win — a 2-0 victory over Gibraltar in June 2019.

Kenny can also take encouragement from the fact that the significant changes both in personnel and formation, partially due to the loss of several important players to injury, did not lead to the thrashing that many fans might have feared.

For at least the opening 67 minutes, the surprise reversion to three at the back and the big call to drop Shane Duffy looked justified.

Browne and Coleman were arguably Ireland’s two best players, but the relatively inexperienced likes of Josh Cullen and Dara O’Shea did enough to suggest they could have long-term futures at this level.

Other players had less successful nights, notably Mark Travers and Aaron Connolly, but both came into this match with a lack of game time at club level under their belt, and both are just 21, and bound to produce somewhat inconsistent displays at this very early point in their respective careers.

3. Where does the result leave Ireland’s World Cup qualification prospects?

It would be foolish to get too downbeat with just one game played, but last night’s defeat to Serbia was undoubtedly a significant blow to Ireland’s qualification prospects.

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After all, it’s a big ask to expect Ireland to get anything from games against a Portugal side who will likely be able to call on world-class stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes.

Assuming they can win all their games against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg — which is by no means a given — defeating Serbia at home now looks essential if they are to keep qualification hopes alive.

And even if they do manage to finish second in the group, Kenny’s men will still then need to navigate the play-offs if they are to reach Qatar in 2022.

That said, the fact that Portugal could only beat Azerbaijan — the lowest-seeded team in the group — by a single goal at home suggests there could be some unexpected twists and turns to come, with the less fancied teams possibly capable of pulling off surprise results.

Nonetheless, qualifying for the World Cup was always going to be extremely difficult — just 13 European teams in total will travel to Qatar in November next year — and it’s just got that little bit harder after last night.

4. Should there have been at least one penalty awarded?

Stephen Kenny was not happy following Ireland’s defeat in Serbia.

“We have had a blatant penalty rejected,” the manager told reporters afterwards. “We’ve watched it back, and Aaron’s touched the ball away and the player has fouled him. That’s a penalty 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.” 

‘Blatant’ is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but replays certainly suggested Ireland were unlucky not to be awarded a spot kick.

Serbia, of course, will themselves point to an incident shortly thereafter, when Vlahović went down in the area following a challenge from Seamus Coleman, and again, the decision to wave play on looked a contentious one.

Yet on another night, an official may well have awarded a spot kick for the Connolly incident and Kenny makes a fair point in claiming it probably would have provided Ireland with the necessary momentum to achieve a more favourable outcome.

Overall though, the result felt like a fair one — Serbia were superior in all the stats, 14 shots (four on target) compared to Ireland’s six (two on target), with 56% of the possession per BBC Sport.

And indeed, one of the biggest questions emanating from last night was how a team with such obvious talent at their disposal as Serbia did not do enough to qualify for the Euros. It seems hard to believe that the 24 sides scheduled to compete in the competition this summer all have better quality within their ranks.

Ireland's Matt Doherty dejected after the game.

Ireland’s Matt Doherty dejected after the game.

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