BELGRADE, June 11 (Reuters) - Wales and Serbia kept alive their hopes of reaching next year’s World Cup finals in Russia after battling out a tense 1-1 draw in an absorbing Group D qualifier on Sunday.
Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic equalised late on with a close-range finish after Wales, without suspended talisman Gareth Bale and several other regulars, took the lead through Aaron Ramsey’s first half penalty in a hostile atmosphere.
Tempers briefly flared on the terraces after the Wales midfielder converted his spot kick, as a dozen Serbian supporters ripped a Welsh flag off the railings and forced riot police to move in and separate the rival sections.
The result left Serbia top on 12 points from six games, ahead of Ireland on goal difference. Third-placed Wales and Austria in fourth have eight points each with four rounds left.
Serbia had pressed to no effect in the first half and were floored by a sucker punch after goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic committed what turned out to be a costly mistake.
He misjudged a long ball and fouled Ramsey just outside the area as the midfielder, who had a superb game, got to it first.
The resulting free kick was floated into the box and Serbia midfielder Luka Milivojevic completed a comedy of errors when he pulled back Sam Vokes, leaving Ramsey to beat Stojkovic with a dinked penalty in the 35th minute amid a chorus of jeers.
Serbia had a penalty claim of their own waved away by Portuguese referee Manuel De Sousa when the ball struck a Welsh arm early in the second half as the home team struggled against a packed and well organised visiting defence.
Serbia finally got their reward for relentless pressure after 73 minutes when Mitrovic, an aerial threat in the box throughout the contest, collected a loose ball and fired it past Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey from seven metres.
The raucous home fans, who had warmly applauded the Welsh national anthem before kick off, celebrated by letting off flares and firecrackers in the cauldron of Red Star’s stadium.
Serbia looked more likely to grab a late winner but the Welsh, roared on by 1,000 away fans, held on for their fifth draw of the campaign. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)