Serbia 2-1 Northern Ireland – Spirited second half helps Serbia overturn Northern Ireland

Serbia turned around a half-time deficit with goals from Marko Pantelic and Zoran Tosic cancelling out Gareth McAuley’s header to secure a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland in the European Championship 2012 qualifier. Nigel Worthington’s side had been unbeaten in their first three games in Group C but came unstuck in a practically empty Crvena Zvezda Stadium in Belgrade after a resurgent second-half performance from the hosts.

Only 265 Northern Ireland supporters and a few officials from both countries were in attendance for the game after UEFA ordered that the game be played behind closed doors. Serbia were punished following crowd trouble at their European qualifier against Italy in Genoa last October.

Both teams started with similar 4-5-1 formations. The midfield was crowded and both teams pumped the ball long to their lone frontman, who would hold it up. Serbia were without Nikola Zigic through injury and often saw the ball come straight back at them when they tried to reach Pantelic but Kyle Lafferty was much more comfortable in his lone role and without any support, Serbia were forced onto the back foot in the early minutes.

Northern Ireland had a distinct height advantage over their hosts and made sure to cross into the Serbian penalty area as much as possible. Zeljko Brkic, making just his fourth appearance for his country, struggled under the high ball and it was from a Chris Brunt delivery that McAuley nodded Northern Ireland in front with just five minutes left in the half. Lafferty, who was forced off injured at half-time, missed a chance to double the lead moments later after battling well from a long ball.

Lafferty’s departure was a turning point for the home side as his replacement, David Healy, struggled to hold the ball up and give his side an out ball as they tried to keep their lead. Serbia dominated possession in midfield and camped themselves in Northern Ireland’s half.

Liverpool’s Milan Jovanovic looked sharp off the bench and he broke down the left for Serbia’s equaliser. His cross should have been cleared but broke to Pantelic who shot under debutant Lee Camp. The pressure from the home side continued and paid off when Milos Ninkovic, another impressive substitute, passed to Tosic on the edge of the area. The former Manchester United man’s shot deflected off his one-time teammate Jonny Evans and past the helpless Camp. Worthington tried to chase a result by bringing on Warren Feeney and Pat McCourt as time ticked away but Northern Ireland failed to even create an equalising opportunity.

After such an encouraging first-half performance Northern Ireland and their small travelling support were forced to leave Belgrade disappointed not to take at least a point with them. Attention now turns to the visit of Slovenia to Belfast on Tuesday, where Northern Ireland could be without their two main strikers. David Healy is suspended after picking up a booking and Kyle Lafferty may be ruled out because of the injury suffered here.

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