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Tuesday 26 Mar 2024
U21s pick up fantastic victory in Serbia

Northern Ireland U21s battled to a superb victory over Serbia U21s in their latest UEFA European Championship qualifier in the Gradski Stadion.

Tommy Wright's side trailed at the break, but hit back in the second half through Charlie Allen and Craig Farquhar to collect their second win of the campaign to move into fourth spot in Group F.

Wright made a number of changes to the sides that lost in a friendly to Czechia last week, bringing in Farquhar alongside keeper Pierce Charles, Darren Robinson and Patrick Kelly to the starting XI.

Serbia made all the early running as the game got underway but proved to ineffective in front of goal and were well contained by a confidence Northern Ireland defence.

Northern Ireland were first to threaten when, on ten minutes, Allen went on a strong run down the left to deliver the ball for Dale Taylor but his subsequent effort flashed just past the near post.

At the other end Vanja Vlahovic tested Charles with a powerful left foot effort from the edge of the area, but the Sheffield Wednesday proved more than equal to the challenge with a superb diving save.

Play then switched again for Allen to send over a free-kick from wide on the left, but Ruairi McConville's half volley just went the wrong side of the far post.

Following a bit of a lull in proceedings the home side seemed to step up a gear as the first half wore to a close with Jovan Lukic heading over from the edge of the six yard box and Milos Pantovic seeing an effort charged down.

The deadlock was finally broken on 40 minutes, however, after Aleksa Matic sent the ball into the area which Vlahovic touched on for Stefan Mitrovic to scramble into the net.

Matic might have doubled the home advantage soon after with a right-foot shot from inside the area but again Charles did well to make the save.

The visitors came close to levelling on the stroke of half-time, which was perhaps a sign of what was to follow after the break when Justin Devenny knocked a free-kick into the box with Farquhar just failing to keep his touch from going past the far post.

Northern Ireland started the second half very much on the front foot, with Allen lofting a ball just over the top from the edge of the area while, a few minutes after that, Kelly went on a dangerous run into the area before the home defence hacked the danger clear.

But Northern Ireland did deservedly level on 56 minutes when Allen clinically swept the ball into the net from around 12 yards out after Sean Stewart went on a darting run down the left to supply the killer cross.

Serbia failed to offer much by way of a response, other than a poor finish from Vlahovic in front of goal.

Playing with vigour and confidence, Wright's side grabbed what proved to be the winner with 20 minutes remaining. Carl Johnston saw a shot blocked for a corner David Petrovic and from the set piece that followed Devenny's delivery was powerfully headed home by Farquhar.

Chasing the game, Serbia did try to find the equaliser with Aljosa Vasic stinging Charles' hands from the edge of the area but the well marshalled defence held firm to repel anything thrown at them.

Charles was called into action again with eight minutes remaining to push away another Vasic attempt, and once more deep into stoppage time to save Vlahovic's volley.

Speaking after the game, Wright was keen to heap praise on his players.

"We've had a tough time with results lately but we deserved that tonight," he said.

"We were disappointed to be behind at half-time, especially since their best opportunities came from our mistakes, but we easily controlled the game for the first 20-25 minutes of the second half, and whilst we were under pressure at the end we had the know how to hold on.

"It was a qualify performance to come here and get this result, especially with the number of absentees we had. The Irish League players were also top class, and it just shows how strong a group we have at this level.

"The lads have put in a tremendous amount of work, they are an absolute credit."

Serbia U21: Veljko Illic, Ognjen Mimovic, Bojan Kovacevic, Uros Drezgic, David Petrovic, Jovan Lukic, Aleksa Matic, Aljosa Vasic, Stefan Mitrovic, Vanja Vlahovic, Milos Pantovic

Substitutes: (used) Marko Lazetic, Nikola Jojic, Matija Gluscevic, Uros Lazic, Mihailo Stevanovic; (not used) Stranhinja Manojlovic, Andrija Katic, Uros Kabic, Vladimir Prijovic

Northern Ireland U21: Pierce Charles, Carl Johnston, Sean Stewart, Ruairi McConville, Odhran Casey, Charlie Allen, Dale Taylor, Justin Devenny, Craig Farquhar, Darren Robinson, Patrick Kelly

Substitutes: (used) Ciaran McGuckin, Jonathan Russell, Tommy Fogarty, Ethan McGee, Benjamin Magee; (not used) Stephen McMullan, Sam McClelland, Josh Archer, Charlie Lindsay