By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic justified coach Dragan Stojkovic's faith in him as he shook off his poor club form to become his country's joint top scorer with a superb brace in Wednesday's 3-2 win over Ireland.
The 26-year old Fulham striker has now bagged 38 goals in 62 appearances for his country, equalling the tally of late former Yugoslavia international Stjepan Bobek, who netted 38 in 63 games from 1946 to 1956.
Mitrovic, who came on as a substitute in the World Cup qualifier against Ireland, turned the match around with his double strike and will now have a chance to break the record when Serbia host Portugal on Saturday and visit Azerbaijan on Tuesday in their next two Group A games.
Stojkovic had defended his decision to include Mitrovic in his 30-man squad for the three fixtures with the striker having struggled for game time with Fulham and failed to find the net in the Premier League since September.
Dusan Vlahovic was preferred in the starting lineup and scored Serbia's equaliser against Ireland before Mitrovic took centre stage in the second half, netting with a delightful lob followed by a trademark header to make it 3-1.
The battling Irish pulled one back with a scrambled goal in the dying minutes but Serbia held on to make a winning start under new coach Stojkovic.
Mitrovic said the lob over Ireland's stand-in goalkeeper Mark Travers from 20 metres after he was released by a superb pass from captain Dusan Tadic was the most spectacular goal of his career.
"Definitely, as I score mostly from inside the penalty area while this one was from long range," Mitrovic told Serbia's Sport Klub television.
"I reacted instinctively as I saw the keeper was out of position and I knew beforehand that Tadic's pass would be inch-perfect. Sometimes you have to take risks and this time it paid off."
Mitrovic conceded it was a patchy performance by Serbia, who fell behind to an early Alan Browne header and failed to trouble Travers before Vlahovic's 40th-minute equaliser.
"We only had two days to prepare and anxiety was everywhere to be seen as we fell behind," he said. "It will take a bit of time to improve in some departments but the most important thing is that we won our opening qualifier.
"(Stojkovic) is very charismatic and he took no time to convince us that we should always take the game to the opposition and set the pace no matter who we're up against."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Toby Davis)