By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia got their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a positive start as substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic scored a second-half brace to give them a comeback 3-2 home win over Ireland in their opening Group A clash on Wednesday.
Alan Browne gave Ireland an 18th-minute lead out of the blue with a close-range header before Dusan Vlahovic levelled in the 40th with a first-time shot from inside the penalty area after Dusan Tadic nodded the ball into his stride.
Tadic pulled all the strings for Serbia in midfield but the hosts created little up front against a packed Irish defence in the first half, with Ireland's stand-in goalkeeper Mark Travers denying Filip Djuricic on the stroke of halftime.
Ciaran Clark went close for Ireland with a header and Nikola Milenkovic fired wide at the other end in the second half before Mitrovic turned the tide with a delightful 69th-minute lob shortly after he came on for Djuricic.
Tadic, who fed Mitrovic with a crisp one-touch pass, racked up his third assist of the evening six minutes later when he picked out Mitrovic with a sublime cross from the left and the Fulham striker beat Travers with a firm header.
Late substitute James Collins set up a tense finish when he pulled one back in the 86th minute as he bundled the ball in from two metres after a deflected shot fell kindly for him.
It was a winning debut for Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic, who took over earlier this month after the Balkan nation failed to reach Euro 2020.
"We showed character and fighting spirit to fight back after falling behind, I never doubted we had it in us to turn the match around," Stojkovic told a news conference.
The former Yugoslavia midfielder also singled out Tadic and Mitrovic, who shrugged off their poor club form and limited appearances to produce clinical finishes against Ireland.
"I had a face-to-face conversation with Mitrovic two days ago and I told him that he can't live in the past. He was going through a rough patch but I never doubted his ability to stay strong in the face of adversity," Stojkovic said.
"As for Tadic, we all know how creative a player Tadic is and quite frankly, I expected his assist because that's what he does best. But he can do even better."
Stojkovic also defended his decision to start with two debutants, wing back Milan Gajic and central midfielder Uros Racic, as Serbia next host European champions Portugal on Saturday before they visit Azerbaijan on Tuesday.
"Three games in a week is a tough schedule and we always knew we'd have to rotate the squad," he said.
Ireland coach Stephen Kenny felt his side were excellent in the opening 25 minutes.
"Then Serbia made tactical changes and dominated possession," Kenny said. "We had a blatant penalty denied when we could have gone 2-1 up and that was a very pivotal moment in the game."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Toby Davis)