Ireland's opening World Cup qualifier started in style but ended in agony as Serbia came from behind to deservedly beat Stephen Kenny’s side at Stadion Rajko Mitic.
Alan Browne scored Ireland’s first goal in seven matches with a fine header to open the scoring in Belgrade after 18 minutes, before Dusan Vlahovic levelled matters five minutes before half-time.
Dusan Tadic played a captain’s role throughout and his quality provided two second-half goals for substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose brace oozed quality from both boot and head.
Ireland fought to get back in the game and managed to give themselves hope in the 86th minute, as substitute James Collins was on hand to clip the ball home, however, despite a final push in added time, Serbia held on to take all three points.
Kenny opted for youth over experience with players like Jayson Molumby and Dara O'Shea named alongside rookie keeper Mark Travers, while stalwarts like Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy were left on the bench.
Two corners inside the opening two minutes proved positive as Ireland started on the front foot, with the second of the set-pieces drilled in low but a ricochet goalwards just passed the wrong side of the post.
The home side burst into life in the sixth minute with a slick move down the right flank as Tadic linked up play before a clever ball was rolled in behind the Irish line. Travers came out to clear, but Coleman took no chances to come across, sweep up and clear the danger.
Ireland's shape out of possession was excellent, as the entire team moved as one unit and they even had the confidence to put on a high press, which forced Serbia to take chances at the back, but their quality of pass got them out of trouble.
Ireland were waiting over 600 minutes to score, since grabbing a late equaliser in Bulgaria back in the manager’s first game in charge, and when Browne rose at the back post to head the ball back across the keeper into the back of the net, it was well worth the wait.
And it all came from a fine footballing move that started out on the right flank with Matt Doherty bursting forward, before a ball into the middle was picked up by Browne, who sprayed it left through Enda Stevens and then into the feet of Callum Robinson.
The West Brom man took a moment, slipped past the defender and clipped a delightful ball in the direction of the back post, and Browne did the rest with a textbook downward header to open the scoring.
Serbia’s corner count was building, seven by the 25-minute mark, but again the Irish defence was regimented and yielded little, with Travers a virtual spectator at this stage of proceedings.
The home side then almost unlocked the defence as Dusan Vlahovic and Filip Djuricic both raced into the box, chasing a perfectly clipped Tadic through-ball, but again the Irish were alert with both O’Shea and Coleman getting between man and ball.
Another Ireland attack had Serbia back-peddling, as Cullen intercepted a pass, which had Stevens motoring down the left, anticipating quick ball. It arrived right in the stride of the former Shamrock Rovers man and he opted to try to beat the retreating defender to reach Connolly who was bombing into the box.
But the ball just lacked that bit of power to get past the first man and Serbia cleared, but it showed that gaps were starting to open up in behind as the home side searched for an equaliser.
However, five minutes before the break the home side restored parity and for once they opted for a more direct approach, and it paid dividends with Vlahovic slotting the ball home after racing on to a Tadic header.
It all came from a situation where Ireland looked to be in control, but a quick aerial ball into the captain, who beat Ciaran Clark in the air, which sent the striker racing away from O’Shea and his first-time effort gave Travers no chance.
The goal sparked the home side into life and they threatened three times inside the final few minutes of the first half as first, Djuricic’s effort was deflected wide at the near post as the ball was slipped in from the left, before Travers made a fine near-post save from Vlahovic after another great Tadic pass.
And then the Serbia captain had the audacity to try to score from the resulting corner as he spotted a big gap at the near post. Travers had to scramble across the goal to make sure it wouldn’t sneak in and he took a fair smack off the post for his troubles.
But the visitors held on until the break, and despite the final flurry from the hosts, Kenny’s men would overall be quite pleased with the opening 45.
Serbia made a change at the break with Filip Kostic replacing Filip Mladenovic, and the home side were straight on the front foot, however, Sasa Lukic could not work his shot on target after good work from Tadic and Djuricic inside the box.
Ireland got back into attack mode in the 49th minute as the ball was worked down the right flank from a throw-in. Robinson raced to the by-line and slipped a dangerous ball across the face with Connolly arriving, but again some sharp defending prevented the ball being worked on goal.
Vlahovic then had a goal disallowed for offside as he raced onto a Tadic through-ball, but replays show that the striker was well beyond the last defender.
Moments later, Ireland were appealing for a penalty as Connolly went down in the box. The referee was on the spot, and immediately signalled for a corner, and replays of the challenge offered nothing conclusive, despite one angle making it look as if contact had been made with the player.
Then it was Vlahovic’s turn to go down inside the box as he fell over the prone Coleman who had slipped as the ball was being played through. The referee again was not interested.
Matt Doherty was again forward in attack as Ireland again worked a great passage of play down the right as Robinson then rolled in the Spurs defender on the overlap.
The ball was played behind the arriving Connolly, before a corner kick was awarded, where Clark saw his near-post header fly wide.
More last-ditch defending was needed by Coleman in the 58th minute to get just in front of Tadic in the box, who was looking to turn the ball goalwards, as the game really started to open up, with both sides looking to play attacking football.
Ireland’s discipline in defence was proving vital against a Serbian side who were getting better as the game progressed.
Jeff Hendrick was the first of the Ireland substitutes, replacing Molumby in midfield; the Waterford native had put in a fine shift in the Irish engine room.
But Serbia were starting to turn the screw as a Nikola Milenkovic’s snap-shot went inches past the post with Vlahovic sliding in and almost turning it home, as it just slipped past the attacker’s foot and the post.
The difference in strength of squads was emphasised by the home side sending on two quality players in Nemanja Maksimovic and Mitrovic in the 63rd minute, while Connolly was struggling with cramp, as the Brighton striker has played little club football as he returns from injury.
And the quality from the bench paid returns straight away as Mitrovic was slipped in on the right side by Tadic, before he spotted Travers off his line.
The finish from the Fulham forward was exquisite as he sent a pin-point lob with pace over the outstretched arms of the Irish keeper as Serbia deservingly took control of the game with their second.
Serbia sensed that they could put the game beyond the Irish, who were being stretched out of shape, and then in the 75th minute, Tadic once again worked his magic to clip a ball over the Irish defence and right onto the head of the arriving Mitrovic, who headed the ball back across goal and into the back of the net.
Job done for the home side as the inspirational captain was waved to the warmth of the bench, with head coach Dragan Stojkovic turning his attention to the vital home game against Portugal on Saturday.
Ireland threw caution to the wind with a trio of substitutions, but it was an uphill battle to attempt to claw back two goals against a side of such quality.
To their credit Kenny’s plucky side gradually started to chip away at the home side who were easing down through the gears, and they narrowed the gap with five minutes remaining.
A hopeful Brady ball was lifted over the top, with Shane Long hustling in the box as keeper and defender got their wires crossed, allowing fellow substitute James Collins to clip the ball goalwards before making sure of the finish.
Ireland piled forward for the remaining minutes, with Travers even venturing up for a corner in the final minute of injury time, however, the third goal would not arrive as Kenny’s World Cup campaign ended in defeat.
Serbia: Marko Dmitrovic; Strahinja Pavlovic, Stefan Mitrovic, Nikola Milenkovic; Milan Gajic, Sasa Lukic, Uros Racic (Nemanja Maksimovic 63), Filip Mladenovic (Filip Kostic HT); Dusan Tadic (capt) (Nemanja Gudelj 78), Dusan Vlahovic (Luka Jovic 82), Filip Djuricic (Aleksandar Mitrovic 63).
Republic of Ireland: Mark Travers; Seamus Coleman, Matt Doherty, Enda Stevens, Ciaran Clark (Robbie Brady 79), Dara O'Shea; Alan Browne (James Collins 79), Jayson Molumby (Jeff Hendrick 61), Josh Cullen; Callum Robinson (James McClean 79), Aaron Connolly (Shane Long 67).
Referee: Davide Massa (ITA).