In the build-up to the Republic of Ireland's World Cup qualifier with Serbia, much was made of Martin O'Neill's claim that the side from the Balkans were a much better side technically than the Boys in Green. It is a line that has long been trodden out by Ireland managers, with Giovanni Trapattoni using agricultural football to get results when he was in charge before O'Neill.
That was the excuse the former Northern Ireland international used when defending his side's poor showing against Georgia when they managed just a 1-1 draw with a team ranked outside the top 100, and the same story was used to prepare fans for Serbia's visit to Dublin. According to O'Neill, Ireland could not play slick passing football because they simply did not have the players. But on Tuesday evening, that is exactly what they did.
Ireland looked like a completely different side against Serbia, thanks mostly to the introduction of 35-year-old ball-playing midfielder Wes Hoolahan into the team and a switch back to a diamond midfield rather than the 4-5-1 utilised in Tblisi. Hoolahan lasted just over an hour as he is judged to be unable to play for as long as he once did, something which is also evident at club level with Norwich City. For the 62 minutes he was on the pitch, he helped Ireland raise their game. The Boys in Green passed the ball well, found space out wide, and Hoolahan's ability to retain the ball in the opposition half helped the possession statistic stay around 50-50.
For all Ireland's endeavour, they did not really test goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic while Hoolahan was on the pitch. Shane Duffy had the ball in the net from a set-piece, but was ruled offside as free-kicks and corner-kicks looked to be the best chance of scoring. When a goal came, it was through a slick passing move from the visitors with Filip Kostic finding Aleksandar Kolarov well in the area before the Zenit defender fired home with power.
Hoolahan was replaced soon after, with O'Neill choosing to send on Daryl Murphy and switch to a more direct style of play. Murphy's strength almost saw him break through just minutes after his introduction, but he was taken out by Nikola Maksimovic as he looked to break and referee Cuneyt Cakir had no other choice but to issue a red card. Against 10 men, Ireland continued to look for the long ball to Shane Long, whose tireless running caused Serbia problems.
With Ireland chasing a goal against 10 men late on, O'Neill went for broke. Tall defender Duffy was sent up front in the hope that his height and strength could make a difference. Cynical play from the visitors helped wind the clock down, much to the frustration of the home crowd, but despite all their hard work, the Boys in Green failed to make the extra man count. News of Wales' goal in Moldova saw Ireland slip to third in Group D as an equaliser never arrived.
Ireland sit just one point behind Wales with two games remaining and travel to Cardiff knowing that a victory could get them to the promised land of the playoffs unless Group D provides the worst second-placed side. Based on their excellent performance in a disappointing loss to Serbia, O'Neill's side should have nothing to fear from Chris Coleman's team. They proved themselves technically proficient to play an attractive passing game. All they need now is the goals to go with it.