The Republic of Ireland and Serbia shared the spoils in what was the fifth match of the 2022 World Cup Qualifications in Group A for both sides at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic gave the visitors the lead in the 20th minute with a fine header from a corner taken by Ajax winger Dusan Tadic, but an unfortunate own-goal from Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic set the score back level with just three minutes left on the clock.
Missed opportunity for Serbia
Having topped the table going into the matchday, Serbia went out in search of a win in Dublin with coach Dragan Stojkovic picking a very attack-minded lineup. Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic led the line upfront, supported by Milinkovic-Savic and Tadic from just behind, while Filip Kostic and Filip Djuricic marauded up and down the flanks. Nemanja Gudelj was very effective in shielding the back line, sometimes stepping back alongside Milos Veljkovic to enable Milenkovic and Strahinja Pavlovic to go wider.
It was a good system which yielded plenty of opportunities with Ireland unable to do much against it, but the second goal which Serbia so desperately needed simply wouldn’t come. Chance after chance went begging, not least due to Ireland’s best performer on the night, goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.
It certainly feels like a missed opportunity to stay in step with group favourites Portugal, who pulled away in the table earlier by winning 0-3 in Azerbaijan.
The name that stood out in the home team, arguably even in the whole match, was Bazunu. The 19-year-old goalkeeper put in a display which belied his age completely. He dominated his box without much fuss, always being in the right position and making the right decision. His distribution was mostly crisp, but what made him stand out far above others were the nine shots on target he managed to stop. Some of those were long-range efforts, but he piled frustration on both Vlahovic and Mitrovic on several occasions when Serbian attacks seemed more likely to end with a goal than not.
Bazunu rose through the ranks at Shamrock Rovers and signed for Manchester City in 2019. He’s been on the books with the Premier League champions since, and his current loan with League One side Portsmouth is his second temporary spell away from the parent club. With Ederson Moraes firmly established as the No.1 under Pep Guardiola, his chances of taking that spot before his contract expires in 2024 are very slim, and his future may well lie away from the Etihad. If performances such as this one continue, he shouldn’t be short of offers very soon, and the place between the posts for Ireland should remain his for the foreseeable future.
There can be no doubt that Bazunu was the man who won the point for his team on Tuesday. Had it not been for him, the score could have risen much higher in the favour of the visitors, and it would then be very difficult for Ireland to bounce back.
It was a night the Ireland players and staff, as well as the vast majority of the spectators in the stands of the Aviva Stadium, will remember fondly for a long time. Their team, though thoroughly outplayed for almost the entire match, showed a lot of fighting spirit, and if anything makes this point deserved, it’s that. They even found strength to push on in search of a winning goal late on.
But the harsh reality is that their success, if it can be called that, hasn’t made much of a difference in the group; it hasn’t improved their chances of a place the next stage of the qualifying process, and the World Cup in Qatar is still very much set to take place without Stephen Kenny’s team.
Ireland are in fourth place at the moment, with only two points from five matches to their name. Only Azerbaijan have done less. Luxembourg are third with six.
As for Serbia, they may have lost their footing in the race for the top spot, but in all fairness, few would have expected them to remain shoulder-to-shoulder with star-studded Portugal for long. If they end this stage in second place, and with 11 points now it’s looking increasingly likely to happen, they won’t be disappointed or look back at the night in Dublin for too long.
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