MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses the odds ahead of Ireland’s opening World Cup qualifying contest in Serbia on Monday night.
Serbia v Republic of Ireland | Monday 19.45 | Sky Sports 2
Ireland may have exited Euro 2016 at the last-16 stage but following a horrific performance in Poland four years earlier, pride was restored with a much-improved campaign this summer.
Martin O’Neill’s agreed to stay on until at least the end of the World Cup qualifiers and the Republic boss will be hoping there’s no French hangover ahead of a tough opening trip to Belgrade on Monday night.
We saw a different side to O’Neill’s Ireland during Euro 2016; sure, defensive errors were punished on the counter-attack against Belgium but the Boys In Green showed a real willingness to take the attacking initiative against Sweden and Italy whilst also giving the hosts plenty to ponder.
The Republic were handicapped by a heavy schedule with few rest days before taking on the fresh French outfit in Lyon but nobody could argue that O’Neill’s underdogs weren’t the better side in the first 45 minutes. Eventually fatigue and a Shane Duffy sending off told and Les Blues sealed progression relatively comfortably.
Considering Ireland were written off before a ball was kicked, it was a brave and encouraging fortnight for green-shirted followers featuring one of our most famous ever victories against the Azzurri in Lille. Belief in Irish football was reborn that night.
There's continuity in the squad, as well as in O'Neill and Roy Keane and with a routine 4-0 friendly thumping of Oman in Robbie Keane’s farewell fixture now out of the way, attention has turned to Serbia.
Monday’s hosts have vowed to put up a united front after a troubled Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. A home game against Albania hit the headlines following the infamous drone incident whilst their on-field displays left many supporters frustrated as the Eagles ended with a poor W2-D1-L4 return.
Three major tournaments have now gone by without qualification as Serbia have undergone a period of misery and stagnation. Slavoljub Muslin is the man now charged with ending that sorry record on the road to Russia and the squad remains well stocked in top-class talent.
Optimism is high in Belgrade and recent form is encouraging too. The Eagles have W3-D1-L0 in their past four friendly fixtures whilst Muslin had added an injection of fresh blood to compliment the presence of six players Premier League players.
However, two of Serbia’s leading performers from these shores are suspended for the opener. Both Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov are banned whilst Aleksandar Mitrovic’s concussion looks likely to keep the Newcastle forward out of Monday’s contest.
Off-field issues continue to bedevil the game in Serbia – just last weekend a match between Novi Pazar and Red Star Belgrade was marred by seriously violent disturbances, with racist chanting, forcing no less a figure than the Serbian Prime Minister to make a statement.
Nevertheless, tickets for this encounter are being sold for as little as €3.20 as the hosts hope to fill the stands with vociferous support in an attempt to offer up a hostile atmosphere for the travelling Irish.
Temperatures and humidity remain high in the Serbian capital but Ireland will hope to cope with the testing conditions and will be desperate to avoid defeat in their qualifying opener.
Since uncoupling from Montenegro, Serbia have W14-D6-L4 as hosts in competitive matches but that record reduces to W6-D3-L4 since their 2010 World Cup appearance with Estonia, Denmark, Portugal and Belgium picking up maximum points in Belgrade.
The six victories across the past six years came against Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands, Scotland, Wales, Macedonia and Armenia with Slovenia, Italy and Croatia seeing the spoils shared. Considering the evidence, Ireland shouldn’t be too daunted by the trip to Belgrade if they can deal with the conditions.
The Republic were beaten in Poland and Scotland en-route to Euro 2016 and in Germany and Austria during their 2014 World Cup campaign but those four losses mark the Greens’ only defeats in competitive away qualifiers since 2007 (W10-D10-L4).
The visitors are a robust and durable outfit and although the likes of Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick could all miss out, the return of Jon Walters should ensure the guests pack enough punch to take a point here.
I’m tempted by the +0.50 Asian Handicap angle but with Ireland rarely picking up away day triumphs at leading nations, and Serbia still in the unpredictable pile, it may well pay to just back the draw at 23/10 with Betfair it’s been a winner in 42% of Ireland’s away qualifiers over the past nine years.
I’ll also have an interest in the 1-1 correct score at 6/1 with William Hill and Both Teams To Score at 6/5 (William Hill). Six of those aforementioned 10 Irish away stalemates arrived by the 1-1 scoreline whilst nine of Serbia’s last 11 home matches have featured both sides scoring, as well as 10 of their past 13 Belgrade qualifiers.
Serbia v Republic of Ireland – Draw (23/10 Betfair)
Serbia v Republic of Ireland – Both Teams To Score (6/5 William Hill)
Serbia v Republic of Ireland – 1-1 correct score (6/1 William Hill)