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Serbia make it despite being pipped

Northern Ireland 1-4 Serbia
Serbia secured the win they needed in Northern Ireland to have a play-off chance despite being denied first place in Group 9 by Italy.

Serbia coach Radovan Ćurčić
Serbia coach Radovan Ćurčić ©Getty Images

Serbia secured the win they needed in Northern Ireland to reach the UEFA European Under-21 Championship play-offs despite being denied first place in Group 9 by Italy – who crucially beat them 3-2 in Pescara on Friday.

Going into the last set of matches, Serbia knew a victory would take them above Belgium, who had already played all of their games, but they also required Italy not to defeat Cyprus. In the end, Italy won 7-1, but Serbia's margin of victory takes them into Friday's play-off draw as the fourth best runners-up.

The visitors showed their physical dominance from the off and led on 34 minutes, Aleksandar Pešić escaping his marker and placing a header past Christopher Johns. Two minutes later Slavoljub Srnić produced a fine finish to double the advantage.

Srnić nearly had another just after the break, denied by a fine Johns save, but in the 56th minute fortunes were reversed as the FK Čukarički winger pounced on a rebound after Pešić had hit the upright. It was soon four in similar fashion, Filip Kostić this time pouncing on the rebound, though Northern Ireland did manage a consolation through Ryan Brobbell.

Radovan Ćurčić, Serbia coach

We are satisfied with the performance, despite having a lot of problems following the first game in Italy, because today we were without five of our main players, three suspended from Italy and two injured. Despite this we responded very well in a tough away game with a very vocal home crowd, which can be intimidating, so we are satisfied.

Jim Magilton, Northern Ireland manager
This was a game where we knew if we did make those schoolboy errors we would be punished. We knew that we had to have a really good day in order to be competitive so we are disappointed we conceded four goals, but it's a learning curve.

We are trying to get these youngsters into top quality games and no matter who they play, we want them to play against real quality, and to play in games they're not likely to forget. It's all part of their development – they have to understand those errors will cost them goals at Under-21 level. They may not be punished in that way at their clubs if they make mistakes, or if they are playing for the U19s, but they will be punished at this level.