If Ireland were offered a 2-2 draw in Serbia before Monday night’s game, they would almost certainly have taken it.
Such was the reputation of the hosts as being an outfit technical in their nature and intimidating in their atmosphere, something of a dogfight was expected.
What followed was some of the sloppiest, most disjointed play from an Irish side in quite some time.
The 2-2 draw confirmed what the Irish public already feared to be true – this side can handle pressure, just not expectant pressure.
Taking the lead in a match has not been something that has sat well with Ireland, as if a 1-0 advantage is a licence to panic. The concept of going for the kill seems to be lost on them – as soon as the ball hits the back of the net, the drop to a deeper position is almost immediate. It was seen during the Trapattoni era, and (to a large degree) that has not changed under Martin O’Neill.
It speaks volumes that Ireland only started to look reasonably impressive after they went 2-1 down – they’re masters of chasing the lost cause but seem to wilt when victory is placed right in front of them. Triumph in the face of adversity is what so much of Irish footballing history was founded on but this was neither the time nor the place for that (or at least, it shouldn’t have been).
The fear seemed to wash away from them as soon as Dusan Tadic’s penalty hit the back of the net, the introduction of Stephen Quinn and Daryl Murphy giving them licence to actually want the ball.
That the ideal scenario for O’Neill’s side would be to start the remaining group fixtures 1-0 down is a worrying thought. A never-say-die attitude is a fantastic asset to have but should be a last resort – it shouldn’t be a case of allowing things to get that bad in the first place.
Ireland went ahead after four minutes – thanks, in part, to some horrendous Serbian defending – and the plan after that seemed to be to defend heavily, when the home side appeared there for the taking if only Ireland could have focused a bit more and retained possession better.
Serbia weren’t particularly impressive last night, and yet Ireland paid them far too much respect. Mistakes were being made everywhere, nobody looked particularly comfortable and while the conditions and the referee could come in for some criticism, neither were game-changers.
If the plan was to defend for the 86 minutes following the goal, then the defence itself needed to be far more composed. Darren Randolph, RTE’s man of the match, looked terrified at times and despite making a few decent saves, was lucky that a big error when Ireland were on the ropes didn’t lead to a third Serbian goal.
Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea have played very little football this season, and it showed. The former will recover, but questions have to be asked now of the latter’s place in the team going forward. O’Neill saw fit to drop O’Shea during Euro 2016 – the Sunderland defender could suffer the same fate during this qualification campaign.
The home side will feel they should have won last night, and they have every reason to. That they didn’t claim all three points, however, is a reflection of their own shortcomings and makes last night’s result even more frustrating.
Ireland will take the point and feel lucky to do so, but that sense of relief will subside slightly when they realise what they potentially left behind in Belgrade.
All of that being said, Ireland would have taken a draw beforehand, and that what is what they came away with. All-in-all a highly satisfactory result, if not the manner it was achieved in.
It gets forgotten about now, just like the Kazakhstan win in Astana in 2012, or the Scotland defeat last year. What they learn from this is irrelevant – Ireland don’t learn from these matches, every game going forward will be a short-term burst of excitement/frustration in its own right just like it has always been.
Ultimately though, this group is far too open to start treating teams with more respect than they have earned.