Belgrade was gripped by anxiety before an overwhelming sense of joy and relief greeted Serbia reaching the World Cup with a nerve-jangling 1-0 home win over Georgia, thanks to substitute Aleksandar Prijovic’s 74th-minute goal while Ireland ripped up the script by beating Wales 1-0 to secure their place in the playoffs late on Monday.
The result, celebrated ecstatically in the cauldron of Red Star’s Rajko Mitic stadium, left the Balkan nation top of Group D with 21 points from 10 games, two more than second-placed Ireland.
It is the second time Serbia have reached the finals as an independent nation, having been knocked in the group stages of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and then missing the next three major international soccer championships.
Coach Slavoljub Muslin, a journeyman who had been in charge of a myriad of European clubs before he took over at Serbia for the qualifying campaign, was elated after the success.
“I expected a tough game against Georgia and suspected that the final step would be the most difficult,” he told a news conference after the organisers set off spectacular fireworks which rocketed into the night sky over the Serbian capital.
“Georgia were the better side in the first half and I told the players to move up a gear after the break, though we had to keep it tight at the back too.”
Prijovic grabbed the winner with a fine finish to delight raucous home fans, who lit several flares to celebrate.
It came after anything but the expected plain sailing for the home side, who looked disjointed for much of the contest after missing their first chance to qualify when they lost 3-2 at Austria on Friday.
Serbia piled on the pressure from the offset but Georgia looked more likely to score in the first half and came close in the 17th minute when midfielder Valerian Gvilia forced a good save from Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
The Serbians carved out their first chance in the 39th minute, as visiting keeper Giorgi Makaridze blocked Dusan Tadic’s shot from a tight angle.
Martin O’Neill’s Ireland soaked up the expected Welsh pressure in the Cardiff City Stadium and landed a sucker-punch in the 57th-minute with one of their rare attacks.
It proved a body blow from which Chris Coleman’s Wales, who started the night above Ireland in second place and still had eyes on top spot, never recovered as their hopes of reaching a first World Cup finals since 1958 evaporated.
Real Madrid forward and Welsh talisman Gareth Bale, missing the crunch clash through injury, could only watch on helplessly in his seat in the stands as Wales suffered their first defeat in 12 World Cup qualifiers.
Ireland finished the group as runners-up with 19 points, two ahead of Wales who paid the price for too many draws earlier in the campaign. Serbia beat Georgia 1-0 to win the group and qualify for the Russia finals automatically.