Northern Ireland's Euro 2012 qualification hopes took a heavy blow in Belgrade as they conceded twice in the second half to surrender a hard-earned lead against Group C rivals Serbia last night. Only some brave last-ditch defending stopped them going behind early on, but when Gareth McAuley rose to head home Chris Brunt's cross in the 40th minute a famous victory looked on the cards.
However Serbia, playing in front of a near deserted stadium as a result of crowd trouble against Italy, hit back through Marko Pantelic before Zoran Tosic drilled in the winner.
Despite the damaging defeat Northern Ireland's manager, Nigel Worthington, was full of praise for the way his side went about their work. "I thought it was a tremendous performance," he said. "In the first half the football they played was absolutely exceptional."
Worthington was particularly pleased by the efforts of young midfield duo Johnny Gorman, 18, and Corry Evans, 20. "Both of the boys were fantastic," he said. "Look at Corry on the right ... he was out on his feet with 20 minutes to go but he didn't want to come off.
"Young Gorman on the other side, he was fantastic, too. He was disciplined and controlled with what he was asked to do at the age of 18 against a very good side. I'm thrilled for them and I'm pleased for the team."
The visitors' opener came when Brunt delivered a free-kick from the right, finding McAuley eight yards from goal. The Ipswich defender found the top corner, beating Zeljko Brkic and sending the 265 travelling fans into raptures.
Serbia were shellshocked and almost conceded again when Brunt played in Kyle Lafferty, who took a neat touch before stabbing his shot over.
The second half saw Northern Ireland emerge confidently but it was soon the hosts in charge. David Healy, occasionally a little off the pace, picked up a needless yellow card that rules him out of Tuesday's match against Slovenia.
Worse followed in the 65th minute when Pantelic swept home from eight yards after a flowing move. Liverpool's Milan Jovanovic then almost put the hosts ahead after finding space in the box, but he hesitated and the chance was lost.
Northern Ireland were now looking in trouble every time Serbia attacked. It was no real shock, then, when the second goal came, Stankovic charging towards the danger area before laying the ball to Tosic who rifled his shot in at the near post. Serbia eased off but Northern Ireland could not take advantage as their substitutes struggled to make an impact.
Serbia (4-4-2): Brkic; Ivanovic, Subotic, Bisevac, Kolarov; Tosic, Ljajic (Jovanovic, 46), Krasic (Petrovic, 86), Stankovic; Milijas (Ninkovic, 46), Pantelic.
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): Camp; Baird, Hughes, J Evans (McCourt, 86), McAuley; Cathcart, C Evans, Clingan, Gorman (Feeney, 78), Brunt; Lafferty (Healy, 46).
Referee: S Gumienny (Belgium).