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By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Aleksandar Kolarov’s second-half strike put 10-man Serbia on the brink of a World Cup place and delivered a hammer blow to Group D rivals Ireland’s chances with a 1-0 victory at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday.
The win puts Serbia four points clear at the top of the group with two games to play - away to Austria and at home to Georgia - and relegated Ireland to third place, a point behind a resurgent Wales who they visit in their final game.
The winners of the nine groups qualify directly for the finals in Russia while the best eight of the second-placed teams take part in two-leg playoffs for four more places.
Serbia survived the final quarter of the match with 10 men after Nikola Maksimovic was sent off for a professional foul and escaped after a justifiable penalty claim to leave Ireland’s hopes of a playoff place hanging by a thread.
“We’ve got to believe that we can still win the last two games and qualify. We’ve still got to fight,” Ireland defender Ciaran Clark said in a pitchside interview.
Ireland revamped their midfield after a disappointing draw in Georgia on Saturday with Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler coming into a more attacking unit and while manager Martin O‘Neill got a high tempo response, his side still struggled in possession.
There was an ominous sign after two minutes when Serbia cut the Irish defence open and Serbia’s Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic was a lunging Shane Duffy block away from opening the scoring from the edge of the box.
Ireland, who had risen to the occasion in big home games before, most notably with a victory over Germany two years ago, had a goal disallowed minutes later but the clearly offside effort from Duffy was as close as they got in the first half.
Serbia soaked up the pressure and showed just how much more of a threat they posed in the final third when Dusan Tadic and Filip Kostic handed the chance of the half to Aleksandar Mitrovic who should have done better from close range.
Tadic fired another warning shot 30 seconds into the second half and Kolarov struck decisively 10 minutes later, finishing off some more crisp attacking play with a rocket sho that flew into the net off Darren Randolph’s crossbar.
Maksimovic’s red card for a misjudged tackle on substitute Daryl Murphy gave the hosts hope and Murphy was very unlucky not to win a penalty after he was held back but the visitors hung on to move closer to a place at next year’s tournament. (Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alison Williams and Ken Ferris)