Republic of Ireland moved a step closer to their third appearance at the European Championship after holding Bosnia-Herzegovina to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their qualification play-off in Zenica.
Despite being without several key men including John O’Shea, Shane Long and Jonathan Walters due to injury and suspension, the visitors acquitted themselves extremely well at the Stadion Bilino Polje, defending stoutly for long periods and taking the lead via a breakaway goal from Robbie Brady after 82 minutes.
And, although skipper Edin Dzeko replied for Bosnia three minutes later, it is the visitors who now look to be in pole position ahead of the return leg in Dublin on Monday.
Having lost just one of their last six qualifiers in order to pip Israel to third-place in Group B, Bosnia came into the game full of confidence and they totally dominated the first 45 minutes.
Vedad Ibisevic and Ervin Zukanovic both went close on several occasions for the hosts as the Irish defended manfully and, at times, rode their luck.
But Martin O’Neill’s side improved significantly after the break and were good value for their battling point in the end.
A largely uneventful opening to the game was characterised by Ireland remaining compact, pressing high and challenging the hosts to play through them.
As a result, it took 11 minutes for the first shot to be fired in anger, Miralem Pjanic’s effort from just outside the box sailing harmlessly over Darren Randolph’s crossbar.
Moments later, full-back Zukanovic missed a far better chance for Bosnia, failing to get any meaningful contact on what was a free header from a Pjanic corner.
As the half wore on, the home side continued to look the more likely and they came close to breaking the deadlock after 22 minutes when Edin Visca again got away down the right and whipped in a teasing cross which the stretching Ibisevic volleyed into the side-netting.
Ireland’s poor ball retention was inviting pressure from the men in blue and they were grateful to Seamus Coleman on the half-hour mark when the Everton man lunged in to block Ibisevic as he looked set to slide home another dangerous cross from Visca.
A headed effort from Zukanovic then drew a regulation save from Randolph as the one-way traffic continued and the visitors were more than a little fortunate to head into the break with the scoreline still locked at 0-0.
A thick fog rapidly descended as the players returned for the second half, but Ireland began reasonably brightly, with Jeff Hendrick forcing Asmir Begovic into his first save of the night on 52 minutes and then firing over from a Brady cross moments later.
With the visibility deteriorating, it looked at one stage as though the game might have to be halted, but German referee Felix Brych opted to play on and Ireland continued to more than hold their own.
Randolph was called into action again to keep out a cross-shot from the lively Visca and a strike from Emir Spahic, before Brady silenced the home fans with a breakaway goal.
Racing away down the right, the Norwich winger cut inside and drove in a low shot that beat Begovic at his near post.
Bosnia’s reply was almost instant, though, with substitute Ognjen Vranjes supplying the low cross which Dzeko swept home from close range, but it was the travelling fans that were in dancing in the fog at the final whistle.
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