Dublin (AFP) – Serbia’s bid to qualify for the World Cup suffered a blow as Nikola Milenkovic’s late own goal and a superb display from teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu gave the Republic of Ireland a 1-1 draw on Tuesday.
Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic put Serbia ahead in the first half in Dublin.
But Dragan Stojkovic’s side were unable to turn their territorial dominance into further goals thanks to 10 saves from Bazunu, a 19-year-old currently on loan at Portsmouth from Manchester City.
The Serbs paid the price in the 86th minute when Milenkovic deflected Milinkovic-Savic’s clearance into his own net.
They sit two points behind Group A leaders Portugal with three games to play for both teams.
Serbia face Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Portugal in their remaining fixtures as the race to reach next year’s World Cup in Qatar heats up.
Last Wednesday’s painful 2-1 defeat in Portugal had left Ireland’s faint hopes of qualification in tatters, adding to the pressure on under-fire boss Stephen Kenny.
Kenny remains winless in 12 competitive games in charge, but he can take heart from his team’s spirited refusal to cave in under Serbia’s relentless pressure.
Serbia threatened twice in quick succession early on as Nemanja Gudelj drilled a pair of long-range efforts that forced Bazunu into action.
The visitors deservedly went ahead in the 20th minute.
Milinkovic-Savic got across his marker to meet Dusan Tadic’s near-post corner with a glancing header and although Bazunu got a hand to the ball he couldn’t keep it out.
It was Milinkovic-Savic’s fourth goal in his last eight Serbia appearances and Tadic’s fifth assist of the qualifying campaign.
Milinkovic-Savic wasn’t far away from netting again moments later when his 20-yard drive flashed wide.
Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic started despite suffering a facial injury against Luxembourg at the weekend.
Mitrovic had scored 17 goals in his previous 12 qualifiers and the Fulham star was close to adding to that impressive tally.
Seizing on Dusan Vlahovic’s chest-down, Mitrovic brought a good stop from Bazunu with his long-range volley.
Without Bazunu, Ireland would have been routed and the over-worked keeper denied Filip Kostic just before the interval.
Bazunu used his legs to repel Mitrovic’s shot from Filip Djuricic’s incisive pass in the second half.
The 19-year-old made an even better stop to push Mitrovic’s close-range effort over the bar.
Bazunu kept Ireland in the hunt with another fine save from Nemanja Radonjic.
And, with six minutes left, out-classed Ireland somehow snatched a point.
James Collins chested down Callum Robinson’s cross and Milinkovic-Savic’s attempted clearance cannoned off Milenkovic and into the net.
In a dramatic finale, Gudelj hit the woodwork from long-range before Ireland’s Andrew Omobamidele forced a brilliant stop from Predrag Rajkovic.