Stephen Kenny earns respite as Ireland draw with Serbia after own goal
At last Stephen Kenny’s luck turned. Another galling defeat loomed for the Republic of Ireland – along with the end of their remote World Cup qualification hopes – until they drew level thanks to a freakish own goal by Nikola Milenkovic. The defender could do nothing about it, the ball having been blasted against him by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who had shot Serbia into the lead in the first half.
No, it was not a win, and yes, Kenny has just one of those from 16 matches at the helm. But this was a performance to fuel belief in the manager’s enterprise against opponents with much more class than Ireland. Serbia would have been out of sight if not for an excellent display by Gavin Bazunu, the teenage goalkeeper whose promotion to his country’s No 1 has been a rare undisputed success of Kenny’s tenure so far. And yet, Ireland nearly won it at the end, when another 19-year-old, Andrew Omobamidele, forced a flying save from Predrag Rajkovic.
Debate swirled before the game about what the repercussions of another defeat might be for Kenny. The manager insists he is engaged in a cultivation project whose fruits might not ripen until Euro 2024, but a couple of local reports suggested the patience of at least some officials at the Football Association of Ireland was wearing thin. The public is split. The late equaliser, though scrappy, gives sustenance to those who believe Kenny needs more time. The players sure look to be on board.
“Our players showed tremendous spirit and played a lot of good football and got a break that we didn’t get before,” said Kenny. “We don’t want to be celebrating draws at home but in the context of what happened before, it was good to come back against such a good team. We hung in there and kept believing.”
Serbia, aiming to climb back above Portugal at the top of Group A, attacked from the start. They did not look like they needed help from their hosts but a slack touch by Shane Duffy inadvertently teed up Dusan Vlahovic in the fourth minute. Bazunu scampered off his line to make the first of many saves.
That escape inspired Ireland. Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty built a couple of nifty attacks that brought encouragement, albeit they did not conclude with a shot. Serbia are a slick team, however, and were quick to retort, with Nemanja Gudelj eliciting two more saves from Bazunu from long range. Hendrick then had a go from 20 yards for Ireland, lashing just wide.
Soon Serbia broke through with a goal of punishing simplicity. Dusan Tadic curled a corner into the near post, where Milinkovic-Savic flicked a header towards the far corner. Bazunu tried to swat it away with one hand but could only slap it on into the net.
Ireland passed from the back pretty well, worked hard and fizzed with positive intent, but for most of the match the best they could muster merely bothered, rather than pierced, the visiting defence. Serbia have quality going forward that Ireland simply do not possess.
In the 39th minute Bazunu had to bat away a shot by Aleksandar Mitrovic after a beautiful set-up by Vlahovic. Bazunu had to make another fine save in the second half to deny Mitrovic after sharp play by Tadic and Filip Djuricic. The young keeper produced an even better stop with his feet to thwart Mitrovic again moments later.
An equaliser did not look likely but Ireland kept plugging away. After a quick throw-in, Callum Robinson crossed into the box from the right, Duffy lunged at it and it was diverted goalward, Milinkovic-Savic tried to rocket it clear but blasted against his teammate and it ricocheted into the net, igniting celebrations and, perhaps, restoring belief.