The Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign reached the point of no return after Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat by group leaders Serbia.
Realistically, only victory over Moldova and Wales in their final two fixtures will rekindle their hopes.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a look at what we learned from a potentially pivotal night in Dublin.
Fight and pride are just not enough
Martin O’Neill could have asked little more of his troops as they responded to a much-criticised display in Georgia with a committed and enterprising performance against the Serbs. But for all the pressure they created, they were unable to summon up the composure and accuracy they needed in the final third to take advantage of Nikola Maksimovic’s second-half dismissal, and they can ill afford a repeat next month.
Wes Hoolahan is key
Although O’Neill apparently sees more in Hoolahan than predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, the Norwich schemer is still not an automatic choice. But for an hour or so on Tuesday night, he once again justified the constant clamour for his inclusion by linking midfield and attack in a style which had been sadly lacking in his absence in Tbilisi. At 35 he is not a long-term solution, but with Ireland now playing sudden death football, his invention could prove priceless.
Another reminder that Robbie Keane’s boots remain unfilled
It is more than a year since Robbie Keane’s international career came to a close after 146 appearances and 68 goals, leaving a yawning chasm in the Irish armoury. Keane had his critics, but his finishing ability at a level where chances can be few and far between could not be questioned. Shane Long, Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy, James McClean and Robbie Brady have all contributed in his wake, but have unsurprisingly not been able to do so with the same regularity.
Indiscipline is costly
The Republic went into the Serbia game with seven members of the starting line-up on yellow cards and ended it with two of them – Brady and McClean – suspended for Moldova’s visit to the Aviva Stadium. It is Brady’s second ban of the campaign, while McClean’s commendable hunger to close down opponents at times lacked control, leading to an inevitable outcome.
Serbia are deservedly at the top of the pile
When Murphy snatched a late equaliser in Belgrade in September, Ireland felt they could go toe-to-toe with Serbia in the campaign. But as they have wilted – the Republic have won none of their last four qualifiers – Slavoljub Muslin’s men have not and in the shape of Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Matic, Filip Kostic, Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, they boast a combination of experience and quality which has proved hugely effective.
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