BELGRADE (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 dinked ‘Panenka’ 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.
Wales manager Chris Coleman said he was happy with the outcome although he conceded his side needed to win all their remaining games to qualify for their second successive major tournament after reaching the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
“I think there are mixed emotions because we took the lead and this is such a tough place to play in,” he told a news conference.
“You can’t come here and play open football for 90 minutes.
“We will be happier with the point than Serbia although we need four wins out of four to qualify directly. Three wins and a draw would probably see us clinch a playoff spot.”
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.
Having praised Ramsey for an inspired display, Coleman was also delighted with his penalty, scored at the same end as Czech midfielder Antonin Panenka’s original dinked spot kick against Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier in the Euro 1976 final.
“I had no doubt Ramsey would score because he is playing with such confidence at the moment but I didn’t see that coming. His input tonight was immense.
“The noise the supporters here make is incredible. It’s an old stadium but the atmosphere is fantastic and we thrived under the pressure. I told the players they must embrace the challenge and enjoy it.”
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.
“We knew it would be a tough match and that Wales would be a difficult proposition even without Bale,” said Serbia coach Slavoljub Muslin.
“I regret that we failed to reward this wonderful home crowd with a win after a poor start to the match, as we put ourselves under enormous pressure to win the game.”
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris