Substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic served up a timely reminder of his potency with a high-quality double as Serbia condemned the Republic of Ireland to defeat in their opening World Cup qualifier.
The striker, currently out of favour at Premier League Fulham, outrageously chipped rookie keeper Mark Travers and then headed home a second in a decisive second-half cameo at the Rajko Mitic Stadium to establish himself as his country’s joint-top scorer in a 3-2 victory.
Alan Browne had earlier ended Ireland’s goal drought after more than 11 hours of football when he gave them an 18th-minute lead in Belgrade, only for Dusan Vlahovic to equalise five minutes before the break and set the scene for Mitrovic, with substitute James Collins’ late strike small consolation for the visitors.
The Group A defeat left Republic boss Stephen Kenny still awaiting his first win after nine games and while there were elements of the performance with which he could be justifiably pleased, there is now little margin for error as they head into Saturday’s home clash with Luxembourg without a competitive win since June 2019.
Such was the impact of injuries and Covid-19 on Kenny’s squad when they last met up in November that only one of the men who started the 0-0 Nations League draw with Bulgaria, defender Dara O’Shea, made a largely youthful starting XI in Belgrade.
With skipper Seamus Coleman, playing for his country for the first time since October 2019, lining up on the right side of a back three, the visitors started positively, but soon found themselves pinned back as captain Dusan Tadic pulled the strings for the Serbs.
Ireland’s defensive organisation was impressive in the early stages and served to starve frontmen Vlahovic and Filip Djuricic of meaningful possession, and it was they who took the lead with 18 minutes gone.
Callum Robinson worked a yard of space for himself on the left side of the penalty area before clipping a cross to the far post, where Browne, who had started the move in midfield, rose to plant a downward header across keeper Mark Dmitrovic and inside the far post, much to the delight of Kenny on the sideline.
Vlahovic glanced a 37th-minute header harmlessly across goal after getting ahead of O’Shea to meet Filip Mladenovic’s cross, but he made no mistake three minutes later when he ran on to Tadic’s flick-on and fired left-footed past the helpless Travers.
The Republic keeper had to make a smart save from Djuricic with Tadic, who curled the resulting corner into the side-netting, once again the architect to ensure his side went in at the break level.
Robinson was almost the provider once again within five minutes of the restart when, against the run of play, he caught the Serbs cold to send in a cross from the right, but defender Stefan Mitrovic got there just ahead of Aaron Connolly.
The visitors enjoyed a far greater share of the ball as the second half unfolded and Ciaran Clark glanced a header wide from a 57th-minute Browne corner after Doherty had stretched the home defence.
But Vlahovic only just failed to get a touch on defender Nikola Milenkovic’s raking 63rd-minute strike as it sped inches wide of the far post at the other end, prompting striker Mitrovic’s introduction.
The newcomer needed only five minutes to leave his mark on the game, spotting Travers off his line before chipping him deliciously from an unlikely angle to put the Serbs ahead for the first time, and promptly helped himself to a second within seven minutes with a trademark header from Tadic’s cross.
Substitute Collins pulled one back for the visitors with four minutes to go after capitalising on Stefan Mitrovic’s weak header, but there was no way back.