Belfast Telegraph

Serbia v Northern Ireland: An empty feeling as we face an uphill battle

By Steven Beacom

It had looked so good for so long. Nigel Worthington's tactics were working a treat. His surprise team selection was appearing inspired rather than insane.



And Northern Ireland were on their way to a famous victory.

But then slowly, agonisingly, it all started to go wrong.

By the time the final whistle blew in Belgrade, Northern Ireland were left wondering what might have been with hopes of playing in next year's European Championship finals hit hard.

The dream has not completely died, but last night's tough to take 2-1 defeat in Serbia means that the nail in the coffin will be well and truly hammered home if we lose to Slovenia at Windsor Park on Tuesday night.

In fact, let's be straight about it, only a win will do.

With six fixtures remaining in Group C, Northern Ireland now find themselves with five points from 12, and in second bottom place. Just the Faroes Islands, who we failed to beat last year, are below us.

Italy, who triumphed 1-0 in Slovenia last night, are well clear at the top and are certs to qualify automatically as group winners.

So, it's all about claiming runners-up spot and a play-off now.

But if our boys play for the rest of the campaign as they did in the last 30 minutes, they can forget it.

It would be churlish not to give credit to Serbia, who showed their class in that period with captain Dejan Stankovic and Milos Krasic turning on the style, but after defending so solidly for so long Northern Ireland will be desperately disappointed to have given goals away to Marko Pantelic and Zoran Tosic.

For the first quick passing was the undoing of the visitors who failed to get a tackle in when required and the second was all about the dribbling skills of Inter Milan hero Stankovic who wasn't stopped in his tracks before setting up to Tosic to rifle home a shot that took a slight deflection off Craig Cathcart.

Worthington had demanded discipline from his team, feeling that it had been badly missing in last month's 3-0 defeat to Scotland in the Carling Nations Cup. He got it for the vast majority of the game, bar the crucial moments when the Serbs scored past debutant goalkeeper Lee Camp.

The goals in the 65th minute and 74th were heartbreakers for the men in green and Worthington, who painfully watched as his plans went up in smoke.

When the manager announced his team on the eve of last night's qualifier against Serbia, it was hard to know if it was brilliant or just plain barmy.

For an hour it seemed to be the former as Worthington's side rose to the most bizarre of occasions, with, due to a Uefa ban on home fans, barely anyone inside the Red Star stadium, bar 265 noisy Northern Ireland supporters.

Out had gone experienced professionals like Stephen Craigan, Grant McCann and Niall McGinn.

In came Cathcart winning only his second cap, in a rejigged back four, and youngsters Corry Evans and Johnny Gorman, who hasn't even played a senior game for his club Wolves yet.

In the first half they all delivered, as did the rest of the side, especially the brilliant Gareth McAuley, who had replaced Craigan at the heart of defence.

The Ipswich Town defender was immense — in both areas.

His well executed header from Chris Brunt's superbly flighted free-kick, which looped over Serbia's erratic goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic and into the net, was a heroic moment and one that Big G will cherish.

It capped what I believe was one of his best games for his country. At times he was our Superman last night, coming to the rescue when danger threatened — one clearance off the line when Milan Bisevac looked certain to give the Serbs the lead was high class.

Ultimately though McAuley and his team-mates were left with an empty feeling and an uphill struggle to qualify.

In international football you need focus and concentration for 90 minutes because quality players will punish you, as Serbia did.

You also need a bit of luck to succeed in this game.

Fortune didn't favour Worthington's brave selection last night.

Belfast Telegraph

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