Nigel Worthington refused to admit it but as he stared across Windsor Park in disbelief at Serbia's winner, and Jonny Evans kicked out at everything wearing red during the dying seconds, their reactions said it all. Hopes of a play-off place have slipped from Northern Ireland's grasp and their misery is entirely self-inflicted.

Northern Ireland had absorbed the best that Vladimir Petrovic's side could offer. Lee Camp was inspired in the home goal and his team-mates had roused themselves into threatening an unlikely victory when Steven Davis produced a moment that will haunt him for ages. The Rangers midfielder had evaded one challenge when he played a woefully under-hit back-pass into the path of Marko Pantelic. One touch later the Serbian striker was around Camp and, with his second, left Worthington and Northern Ireland aghast as qualification for Ukraine and Poland moved further into the distance.

"It is a really cruel way to lose a game and we are hugely disappointed for one of our top professionals in Steven Davis," the Northern Ireland manager said. "We don't forget all the good things Steven has done for us over the past four years and we will give him all the support we can. He knows football can be like this and he'll deal with it."

Serbia had dominated the first half, overrunning Northern Ireland in midfield and serving notice of a hectic night for Camp. It therefore increased the torment for Worthington that his side had responded on all fronts when Davis fatally under-hit from inside his own half.

The visitors' need for victory was both desperate and apparent in their approach and, in Milan Jovanovic, Zoran Tosic and to a lesser extent Aleksandar Kolarov, they had three players keen to disprove their Premier League reputations. Jovanovic's most impressive performance at Liverpool came in the negotiations for a contract that paid a ridiculous £120,000 a week for the first 12 months. Weighed down by cash, he returned to Belgian football with Anderlecht in the summer but he proved a menace here, striking the bar early on and forcing Camp into one of many excellent stops. Serbia's clearest chances before the interval fell to Dejan Stankovic and Pantelic but, on both occasions, Northern Ireland were reprieved by poor finishing.

The siege demanded a change from Worthington and his reaction brought instant improvement. Chris Brunt dropped to the left of a five-man midfield and, though Serbia's threat remained constant, Northern Ireland broke the visitors' rhythm and caused problems of their own.

Windsor Park was open only to home supporters as a result of Uefa's ban on their Serbian counterparts and thought it had witnessed a breakthrough twice in three minutes. Corry Evans rose to meet his brother Jonny's cross from the left but, unmarked and at full stretch, could only head over. Brunt's drive, after Bojan Jorgacevic had spilled David Healy's delivery from the right, then cannoned wide off Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic.

Camp saved superbly from Milos Ninkovic and Jovanovic but, just when Northern Ireland had established a foothold, they reached for the self-destruct. They was to be no rousing finale. Instead Jonny Evans collected a booking that will keep him out of the trip to Estonia on Tuesday at the third reckless attempt and Worthington was left beaten and under-resourced.

"Estonia beat Slovenia so it is still alive. There is a lot left to play for," he said. "Jonny has got to learn from that. I know how much he wants to win and he was frustrated but, apart from the booking, I thought he had a super game."