Serbia 2 Northern Ireland 1: Brave Northern Ireland were left with an empty feeling in Belgrade last night.
No points, no luck and nothing for the 265 passionate Northern Ireland supporters, who were the only fans allowed inside the vast Crvena Zvezda Stadium, to cheer about in the end.
Reaching the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine has just got a great deal more difficult.
After October’s draw in the Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland badly needed at least a point against a Serbian side who were missing three key players in Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic, Birmingham City striker Nikola Zigic and first-choice goalkeeper Bojan Jorgacevic.
For large parts of this surreal experience it looked as though a first-half headed goal from Gareth McAuley would be enough to secure a positive result against one of the top sides in Europe.
However, the Serbians, who were forced to play this game behind closed doors as punishment for their fans rioting in Italy last October, hit back with second-half goals from Marko Pantelic and the brilliant Zoran Tosic to secure victory and condemn Northern Ireland to their first defeat in this Euro 2012 qualifying run.
Northern Ireland’s momentum, which they had built up in a terrific first half, simply disappeared in the second period and this allowed the Serbs to dictate play and earn the win.
It was bitterly disappointing as every Northern Ireland player, especially those in defence, had put in a great effort, only to fade when it mattered.
Former England U21 goalkeeper Lee Camp made his debut in goal and impressed with a couple of fine saves, McAuley replaced Stephen Craigan as Aaron Hughes’ partner in the centre of defence, while boss Nigel Worthington made a bold statement by starting with youngsters Craig Cathcart, Johnny Gorman and Corry Evans in place of more established internationals.
Teenager Gorman, making his first competitive international start, certainly didn’t lack confidence, wearing orange boots and accepting David Healy’s No.9 shirt.
Captain for the night Chris Baird, on his 50th appearance for his country, battled valiantly alongside the ever-improving Sammy Clingan, while Chris Brunt seemed to enjoy the position of playing just off the front man in a 4-4-1-1 formation. He was constantly feeding the ball through to his young wingers and Kyle Lafferty during the opening exchanges.
It was A-Level student Gorman though who had the first real shot
that tested Serbian goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic, who was flapping desperately after a succession of darting Northern Ireland corners.
The Serbs survived, although a rasping drive from Brunt went extremely close to finding the bottom corner on 13 minutes.
Northern Ireland were holding their defensive line well, frustrating the talented Serbs.
But when veteran Dejan Stankovic linked up with former Manchester United winger Tosic, the home side started to penetrate. A great cross from Tosic on 14 minutes needed a brave header from Cathcart to put the ball out for a corner.
Minutes later Tosic again crossed the ball and found Milan Bisevac only a few yards from goal, but, under pressure, he failed to trouble a relieved Camp.
On 22 minutes Tosic weaved his way past Jonny Evans and into the box, but Adem Ljajic’s shot was brilliant cleared off the line by McAuley.
Northern Ireland were starting to dominate possession again and when Lafferty was fouled on 39 minutes it gave Brunt the opportunity to swing a ball into the box — which he did to perfection.
The Serbian defence failed to pick up their men and McAuley made his presence felt as he rose to power a header home from eight yards out. The Northern Ireland fans in their little corner of the stadium screamed and chanted their approval loud and proud.
The Serbs were rattled and Lafferty had a chance to put the visitors further ahead when he was played in by Brunt only to strike his shot on the run over the bar.
Lafferty was replaced by David Healy at half-time. It allowed Northern Ireland’s all-time leading scorer to go level with Keith Gillespie on 86 caps, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed this experience.
Serbia made two changes, with Milos Ninkovic and Milan Jovanovic coming on for Nenad Milijas and Ljajic respectively.
Camp had hardly touched the ball but he was forced to make a wonderful point-blank save on 53 minutes from Branislav Ivanovic’s bullet header allowing young Gorman to boot it off the line to safety.
Substitute Healy picked up a yellow card for a silly hand ball, a caution that rules him out of Tuesday’s qualifier against Slovenia at Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland though were really punished on 65 minutes when Ninkovic and Jovanovic set up Pantelic to fire the ball low and hard past Camp.
With Northern Ireland rattled, Jonny Evans had to make a last-gasp tackle to deny Jovanovic minutes later. But then, Serbia did indeed go in front on 74 minutes.
Stankovic fed Serbia’s dangerman Tosic and the tricky winger’s rasping shot took a deflection of Cathcart and into the top corner.
Worthington brought on striker Warren Feeney in place of Gorman and then Paddy McCourt for Jonny Evans. But it was to no avail. They were simply running on empty. It seemed to sum up the night.