Defensive errors sink Northern Ireland in Bosnia and Herzegovina clash
Uefa Nations League League B Group 3: Northern Ireland 1-2 Bosnia & Herzegovina
GETTING blocked would maybe have been the best Northern Ireland response to being mugged (and indeed blocked so much) by Bosnia & Herzegovina on Saturday.
The hosts played really well for much of this match – and should have had a penalty in the opening minute – but defensive errors led to both of the visitors’ goals.
In contrast, all the home passing and pressure resulted in only one goal, and that in the 93rd minute, from the returning Will Grigg.
As a defiant defensive effort combined with clinical finishing from few chances to produce the victory, in a sense this was the biter bit– and that’s always shocking and sore to take.
From the outset Northern Ireland were the team on top, and went on to have – if not exactly enjoy - two-thirds of the possession, perhaps for the first time ever.
Yet despite turning that into 24 shots, compared to five for Robert Prosinecki’s side, the men in green could not convert their superiority into goals until it was almost too late.
Grigg came close to connecting to a clipped centre from skipper Steven Davis in the fifth minute of stoppage time but the point which was the least that Northern Ireland deserved did not arrive.
Tributes were paid before kick-off in the stadium to former Northern Ireland great Jimmy McIlroy, who died last month, and he would surely have approved of almost everything except the scoreline.
Davis admitted that his mind was rather boggled by the result: “It was one of those games where you came away scratching your head wondering how you didn’t win it, never mind not taking anything from it, so the overwhelming feeling is disappointment - but there will be a lot of positives to take from the game.
“I thought we have certainly played a lot worse and won games, but you have to be ruthless with the chances and I think we are disappointed with the manner we conceded the goals.
“I think that’s certainly one thing we have done well over the years, making teams work for the goals - maybe didn’t do that just as well.
“But we kept trying to plug away until the final whistle. It would have been easy for us to allow our heads to drop, after the second goal especially, just let the game fizzle out, but we kept trying to plug away and I thought we did well to do that.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic acknowledged that fortune had favoured them at Windsor: “We were a little bit lucky; they played a very good game. They put us in very difficult situations because they play long balls, play very physical.
"For us it was maybe not the easiest thing because we prefer to play the ball down on the field. It was not easy against this team.
“I think maybe they were also the better team today but we were more concrete, we scored two times. The game for us was very good in the defensive part but we have some things to do better when we attack.
"For us, it’s very important to start with a victory and we hope now against Austria to win again.”
The Balkan side could take a firm grip on this group if they win again tomorrow (Tuesday) night at home to the Austrians, but they never truly got to grips with this game.
Instead, Northern Ireland started superbly, and should have been awarded a spot kick inside 40 seconds when Saville was clearly clipped by centre back Ervin Zukanovic after Davis had seized on loose ball to find the 25-year-old inside the penalty area.
Referee Pavel Kralovec of the Czech Republic astonishingly waved ‘play on’ and proceeded to let quite a lot go in this game, even if he did book three Bosnians over the course of the match.
New Middlesbrough midfielder Saville felt that the match official made the wrong call: “It was pretty much the first thing that had happened in the game and looking at it back, it’s an easy decision - it is an easy decision.”
NI manager Michael O’Neill had been bold in his selection, not only in giving competitive senior debuts to 21-year-old goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and 20-year-old Jamal Lewis at left-back, but by including Niall McGinn in attack rather than a more orthodox midfielder. With Josh Magennis ruled out by injury, Kyle Lafferty led the line – and the hosts went for it.
Although the penalty claim was rejected, Northern Ireland kept knocking on the door, and the visitors were rattled.
The hosts were clearly probing at perceived Bosnian weaknesses in both full-back positions, with defensive midfielder Muhamed Besic filling in on the right and Eldar Civic winning only his second cap on the left.
McGinn had one shot blocked and another parried out by goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic, while Stuart Dallas – who had a superb game – shot narrowly wide.
The home full-backs, Lewis and Conor McLaughlin were getting forward well too, and a neat, straight pass from the former sent in Dallas for a clever cut-back – but Lafferty hooked weakly when he’d have been better of leaving it for Davis.
The first warning bell rang close to the half hour when Bosnian captain Edin Dzeko exchanged passes with his namesake Visca, but the Roma striker’s close range shot was well kept out by Peacock-Farrell.
Six minutes later Lafferty couldn’t quite stretch to head in a Lewis cross – and inside the same 36th minute Bosnia-Herzegovina were, amazingly, in front.
Pjanic played his part, sweeping the ball out left to Dzeko, who teased McLaughlin before rolling a cross into ‘the corridor of uncertainty’ – and the only man moving quickly was Haris Duljevic, who made a brilliant diagonal run past Lewis and Cathcart to turn a shot in for his first international goal.
Dallas probably had a clearer chance to level matters early in the second half, but when a cross came over Lafferty’s head he only met the ball with his studs and Sehic was able to tip the bouncing effort over the bar.
Olly Norwood, who was dictating matters in midfield, then delivered a free kick deep for Lafferty to force a save at the far post, with Saville smacking the loose ball on target – but into a defender’s face.
Such profligacy was punished again in the 64th minute when Craig Cathcart’s header back to his ’keeper was too weak and Elvis Saric – uh-huh-huh – nipped in to beat Peacock-Farrell to the ball and finish to an empty net.
The Watford defender manned up afterwards, saying: “Obviously we’re really disappointed with the goals and I’ll take full responsibility for the second one.
“It was one of the most one-sided defeats I’ve ever played in. It was so frustrating coming off the pitch.
“It was one of the most complete performances that a Northern Ireland team has put in in my time.”
Prosinecki’s pre-match confidence was proved right by the result, if not the performance, although B & H did defend doggedly.
Perhaps, though, they were helped by their opponents taking most of their many corners short, and then not truly testing the goalkeeper.
However, O’Neill definitely cannot be accused of not trying to rescue the result, almost playing a 3-3-4 formation from the 75th minute onwards, with Jamie Ward joining Grigg, Liam Boyce, and the excellent Dallas in attack.
Switched over to the right, the Leeds United man was increasingly dangerous, whipping over crosses, but Grigg and Boyce both spurned opportunities.
Saville had another shot blocked by his nemesis Zukanovic, then Boyce’s low effort was saved by the feet of Sehic.
It seemed like NI would never scored when Grigg shot scuffily after being picked out by Dallas, but the Wigan man did net smartly when Boyce cleverly returned a flick-on across the six-yard box.
Yet they could not conjure up an equaliser, slipping to defeat to the amazement of Davis, who said: “We certainly haven’t dominated many games like that in my international career, I thought we set the tone really well, we pressed high from early on and forced them into areas, and that gave us the incentive to keep doing that.
“I thought there was a really good energy about the team out there, I thought we used the ball well and for all the possession we had I thought we did well to put it into the right areas - but you have to be clinical as well as creative.”
That lack of cutting edge has long been a Northern Ireland failing – but this is a loss that will feel particularly painful.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell; C McLaughlin (Boyce, 69), Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Norwood, Davis (capt.), Saville; McGinn (Ward, 76), Lafferty (Grigg, 69), Dallas. Subs not used: Carson, McGovern, Smith, Washington, Ferguson, C Evans, Jones, McNair.
Bosnia & Herzegovina: Sehic; Besic, Sunjic, Zukanovic, Civic (Zakaric, 76); Saric (Krunic, 67), Cimirot, Pjanic (Bajic, 83); Visca, Dzeko (capt.), Duljevic. Subs not used: Kjosevski, Piric, Nastic, Prcic, Kodro-Maksumic, Milosevic.
Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic).
Northern Ireland ratings:
Bailey Peacock-Farrell: Saved smartly from Edin Dzeko on the half hour but his hesitancy perhaps contributed a little to both goals. 6
Conor McLaughlin: Put in some good crosses – but didn’t stop the low one that Dzeko delivered for the crucial opening goal. 6
Craig Cathcart: Had done fairly well against Dzeko but lost him for one goal chance. His weak back-header led to the visitors’ second goal. 6
Jonny Evans: A solid display, strong in the air at both ends, but had a header comfortably saved and was also beaten a few times by flick-ons from Dzeko. 6.5
Jamal Lewis: The second youngster to make his competitive senior debut and he looked the part, getting forward with pace and purpose. Might have been more alert to the run for the first goal but looks a real talent. 7
Oliver Norwood: An excellent all-round midfield performance, very involved from the outset, with some precise, probing passing and decent dead ball deliveries. His first goal is coming…8
Steven Davis: The skipper was terrific too, playing some perfectly-weighted passes to colleagues to create openings. Retains possession so well and uses it even better. 8
George Saville: Clipped and fell in the penalty area in the first minute, to no reward. Worked hard to win possession and used it well. Had two on-target shots blocked.
Niall McGinn: Shooting on sight early on, looking lively, and made some clever runs, but faded a little before being replaced by Ward. 7
Kyle Lafferty: Perhaps went to ground too easily against the centre halves. Had one proper effort at goal, a back-post attempt from a Norwood free kick, but was replaced by goalscorer Grigg. 6
Stuart Dallas: A terrific display from the Cookstown man, who put pressure on Besic early on. Didn’t catch a volleyed chance properly but created other opportunities with his pace and crossing ability. A threat on both flanks. 8.5
Will Grigg: Back on the international scene and back on the score-sheet, indeed came close to netting twice. 7.5
Liam Boyce: Some heavy touches but good work too and had a shot saved by the goalkeeper’s feet before assisting the goal. 7
Jamie Ward: Chased down a cross-field ball with typical terrier-like tenacity