Davis error deflates Northern Ireland’s Euro dreams
Northern Ireland 0 Serbia 1: Serbia last night stamped all over Northern Ireland’s dream of reaching the Euro 2012 finals.
For the third campaign in succession a September defeat has inflicted serious damage to qualification hopes. Four years ago it was Latvia and Iceland who put paid to Euro 2008 hopes. Two years ago Slovakia ended the World Cup quest.
And while the damage may not quite be irreparable, with back-to-back games against Estonia coming up — the first in Tallinn on Tuesday — it is likely that three wins are now needed in the final three games. And the last of those is away to unbeaten Italy.
Marko Pantelic pounced on a short backpass from Steve Davis midway through the second-half and then took full advantage of the mistake as he fired home the only goal of the game.
The unforced error was like a knife to the heart for Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington, whose team now lies fifth in Group C after last night's results.
The fact that Northern Ireland had been on top when Serbia struck only made matters worse.
Tuesday's game in Estonia is now vital to Worthington's men. Win and there is still a chance that Northern Ireland will still be in the mix next month. Anything less and the last two fixtures will be all but academic.
An early goal settled the team against the Faroes and laid the foundations for that wonderful victory last month – inspired by the fantastic Paddy McCourt – who missed last night's game through injury.
Chris Brunt was presented with an opportunity to open the scoring just five minutes in this time, but Chris Baird's through ball fell onto his weaker right foot and his shot didn't overly trouble Bojan Jorgacevic in the Serbia goal.
It wasn't long before the visitors began to get into their stride though.
Zdravko Kuzmanovic broke into the Northern Ireland box, he attempted to chip goalkeeper Lee Camp, who was fortunate to be able to get both hands to the ball at the second attempt.
Camp could do nothing two minutes later when former Liverpool striker Milan Jovanovic's deflected shot from the edge of the box looped over him. Thankfully it also looped over the crossbar.
The Serbs were beginning to get on top. Aleksandar Kolarov cut inside on his right and forced Camp into a diving save.
Marko Pantelic and Milos Ninkovic linked up on the edge of the box. Gareth McAuley cut out the attempted one-two and Aaron Hughes blocked Zoran Tosic's cross from the right. All this inside the opening 20 minutes.
The Serbs were enjoying far too much possession in the Northern Ireland half and Dejan Stankovic wasn't being closed down when he had the ball. Pantelic chipped the ball over the bar and Tosic had another shot blocked as Northern Ireland held on, until half-time gave the overworked defence some respite.
Although Worthington didn't make any changes it was a much better looking Northern Ireland at the start of the second-half. There was a spark in the team and Grant McCann's cross a couple of minutes in, from the right, fell just in between David Healy and Brunt.
Suddenly Northern Ireland were creating chances. On 56 minutes Jonny Evans crossed for brother Corry. His glancing header drifted just over the crossbar.
When a Serbian attack was broken up a minute later and Brunt sent a great cross-field ball straight to Healy. He drove forward down the right and crossed for Davis. The ball wasn't properly cleared and as Brunt pounced Ivanovic got a block in.
Worthington threw Niall McGinn into the action just after the hour and within seconds he teased the Serbia defence and sent a low cross into the box for McCann, who forced Jorgacevic into a save.
After 20 minutes of absorbing Northern Ireland pressure Serbia broke forward and only a great fingertip save from Camp stopped Ninkovic from finding the top corner of the net.
Then on 67 minutes Northern Ireland contributed to their own downfall. Instead of looking to send the ball forward into the Serbia half, Davis tried to find Camp with a backpass. He hadn't accounted for Pantelic staying forward as play broke up. He reacted immediately, pounced to take possession and rounded Camp, who had raced out of his goal and rolled the ball into the net.
First Warren Feeney and then Josh McQuoid came on up front as Worthington went for broke, but the one chance everyone was hoping for didn't come – and neither did any points that would have kept the momentum rolling