HISTORY has a rather annoying habit of repeating itself.

Mark Hughes' Wales found themselves standing at the summit of Euro 2004 qualifying Group Nine - and perhaps were getting a little carried away, even though they would loathe to admit it.

Step forward Serbia and Montenegro, two regions of the now disbanded Yugoslavia. With nothing to play for, Serbia now decide to turn it on.

Maybe it is just ghastly coincidence but the Yugoslavs have a fixation of bringing Wales down a peg or two when they look almost unbeatable.

Cast your minds back to 1976 - actually before I was born - and Wales, like the current class of 2003, were on a record-breaking winning run of five competitive matches.

It was apparently a stuffy April day in Zagreb and the two countries were battling it out in the first-leg of a quarter-final in the European Championships (In those days, the last eight games were played on a home andaway basis)

Wales lost 2-0 before drawing the return in Swansea a month later 1-1. Seems familiar.

Last night's game in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, was just as huge. A positive result, as Hughes and his players kept waxing lyrical in the five-month build-up, would have confirmed them a play-off place.

A win or a draw inside the Red Star Stadium and Hughes' boys would have been reaching for the map of Europe to plot their Algarve adventure.

But Wales have never beaten Yugoslavia and, unfortunately, that depressing statistic now stretches to eight matches, with Wales losing five of them.

The Welsh were good value for a point but losing concentration on a 72nd minute corner cost them dear as the impressive Red Star Belgrade midfielder Dragan Mladenovic was lurking to send the near 800 Welsh contingent home down in the dumps.

There were Welsh performances that would really please Hughes once the dust settles following this heart-breaking 1-0 defeat.

Daniel Gabbidon was easily Wales' man-of-the-match with a colossus performance that would have coaches of Europe's bigger clubs raising their eyebrows and enquiring politely to their chairman whether there is a spare £3million or so lying dormant in the bank. Cardiff City would be hard-pressed to refuse that kind of cash

The rearguard were constantly under intense pressure due, in truth, to the absence of big John Hartson up front.

Wolves' Newport-raised striker Nathan Blake could not hold the ball up well enough as the bloodthirsty Serbs went for the jugular. In fairness to Blake, being the lone-ranger is difficult - especially when you're not match fit - but Hartson makes it look easy.

What was most upsetting for both men was the racial taunts from the crowd which Wales boss Hughes insists will be reported to UEFA. Racism needs to be kicked-out of football altogether - and Serbia could face a fine or being forced to play their home games behind closed doors.

On the pitch, the Serbs bombarded Paul Jones' goal, launching regular assaults to test the Welsh back-line.

Robert Page snubbed two early sniffs and Gabbidon's torso bore the brunt of Dejan Stankovic's 20-yard thunder-bolt that was dangerously heading for its intended target.

Southampton stopper Jones was alert to make a point-blank save from Mladenovic after Ivica Dragutinovic's right-wing corner had fallen to the midfielder's feet.

Jones, however, could do nothing except watch when Lazio playmaker Stankovic, pulling Serbia's strings, let fly and saw his 30-yard rocket crash the angle of post and bar.

The home fans roared and Wales were on the back foot.

Hughes' men, though, were keeping their passionate entertainers at bay. Now the Welsh were getting a foot-hold into the occasion, creating their own little half-chances and keeping the ball in an effort to frustrate their opponents.

Blake made an opening for himself after Ryan Giggs' flick but Serbian goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevric quickly read the danger.

It was all hands to the pump for the Welsh after half-time as the Serbians launched wave upon wave of attacks. Stankovic stung the hands of Jones with a low, rasping drive on the hour.

Then came Wales' soul-crushing moment. Mladenovic wriggled free in the danger-zone after Stankovic's corner was headed back across goal by Celta Vigo striker Savo Milosevic, his first touch after replacing hotshot Mateja Kezman, and the midfielder, in his home stadium, rifled home a debut goal which was only the second Wales have conceded this campaign.

Wales probed the Serbian defensive fortress, and little sub Robert Earnshaw could have made himself a hero as he sped onto Simon Davies' through ball, rounded on-rushing keeper Jevric but saw his goal-bound effort cleared off the line by diving Mladen Krstajic.

Gabbidon missed a chance late on following a sweetly struck corner from Giggs but Wales' luck was out.

Group Nine is now wide open again. Wales now need a favour from Serbia and hope they beat the Italians, who visit Belgrade four days after Hughes' men meet the Azzurri in a winner-takes-all clash in Milan.

Shame for Wales that Serbia's creative genius Stankovic and fellow midfielder Vukic will miss that crunch game next month after picking-up their second booking of the qualifying campaign last night, which means an automatic one-match ban.

Serbia and Montenegro: D Jevric; G Gavrancic, M Krstajic, D Stefanovic; M Cirkovic, D Mladenovic, D Stankovic (P Dordevic, 80), Z Vukic (S Ilic, 67), I Dragutinovic; M Kezman (S Milosevic, 71), D Kovacevic Subs not used: D Zilic, N Dordevic, B Boskovic, G Bunjevcevic Booked: Z Vukic 17 (dissent), D Stankovic 19 (foul), D Jevric 88 (time-wasting), S Milosevic 90 (foul)

Wales: P Jones; M Delaney, R Page, D Gabbidon, G Speed (c); C Bellamy, S Davies, R Savage, M Pembridge, R Giggs, N Blake (R Earnshaw, 77) Subs not used: M Crosseley, R Weston, A Williams, A Johnson, J Koumas, N Roberts Booked: M Delaney 60 (time-wasting)

Referee: Mr Anders Frisk (Sweden) Attendance: 32,000