A first half goal wasn't enough to get Northern Ireland three points in Belgrade as Serbia turned a dominating second half into a 2-1 victory in Euro 2012 Group C qualifying. With the win, Serbia is up to seven points in the group and starting to make up the ground they lost when they were beaten by Estonia. On the flip side, Northern Ireland almost certainly have to get three points against Slovenia in Belfast on Tuesday if they are to stay in the qualification hunt.
The match was quiet and a strange sight to see because it was played behind closed doors. As punishment for their fans rioting and attacking Italian police after their last qualifier, Serbia was forced to play the match with no fans in the stands. The players, coaches, referees and match officials were joined by only a small group of traveling Northern Ireland supporters in the upper deck, giving the large stadium an eerie feeling.
That eerie feeling didn't stop Northern Ireland from being the better side in the first half, surprising the Serbians. The visitors pushed forward time and time again, finally seeing it pay off when Gareth McAuley struck. A free kick from the right swung into the box and McAuly got his head to it, looping it over the keeper and under the bar for a 1-0 lead.
At halftime, there was no doubt that Northern ireland had been better than Serbia, but while Northern Ireland may have been better in the first half, Serbia was dominant in the second half. Right from the start of the second stanza they pushed forward and pressure the Northern Ireland defense, even forcing a top save, but it didn't pay off until the 61st minute.
Milos Ninkovic found space on the left edge of the box and spotted teammates making runs. He played a low ball across the box and with Northern Ireland defenders scrambling, a toe poke put the ball on Marko Pantelic's foot. The Olympiacos striker quickly turned and shot, putting the ball in the net and the match on level terms.
Eight minutes later Serbia got their game-winning goal. Once again, Ninkovic was at the heart of the move, running at the Northern Ireland defense from deep and finding plenty of space in the center of the pitch. As the defenders kept retreating, Ninkovic kept running and it wasn't until he was 20 yards from goal that a defender stepped up to him. When then defender did, Ninkovic laid a short ball off for Zoran Tosic who hit the ball right away. The ball was well struck and quickly by the keeper for a three-point winning goal.
Twice Serbia almost made it 3-1, but it didn't matter. Northern Ireland could find anything in the attack and Serbia's lead was never in doubt. While they could not celebrate with their fans, Serbia did get to celebrate with their teammates and thousands of empty seats as the final whistle blew with three points in their back pocket.