SKOPJE (Reuters) - Serbia's hopes of reaching their second successive World Cup as an independent nation took a serious blow after they slipped to a 1-0 defeat at southern neighbours Macedonia after a lacklustre performance on Tuesday.
The loss left the Serbians with four points from as many games, six behind Belgium and bitter regional rivals Croatia, whom they visit in a potentially explosive clash in March.
Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic surprisingly left captain Branislav Ivanovic on the bench and the decision backfired spectacularly as his replacement Nenad Tomovic was sent off in the 58th minute.
The right back hauled down Macedonia striker Ferhan Hasani and the live wire Agim Ibraimi, who supplied the defence-splitting pass that left Tomovic stranded, steered in the penalty to the delight of the vociferous home fans.
Hasani and Ibraimi gave the Serbian defence a roasting after a tepid first half in which neither side created a clear cut chance while both gave away possession in midfield time and again.
Dusan Tadic nearly snatched an equaliser when he shot wide after a good solo run and winger Zoran Tosic skied his shot from 12 metres over the bar with time running out.
"We knew it would be a tight game and we made it difficult for ourselves by falling behind," Mihajlovic told Serbia's Prva TV.
"The idea of leaving Ivanovic on the bench was to add steel to the back four and unfortunately Tomovic made a mistake which could happen to anyone so I can't blame him."
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by John Mehaffey