Football/Soccer

Meeting of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Northern Ireland is not an end-game

Northern Ireland are aiming to bounce back from defeat in Austria away to Bosnia-Herzegovina tonight in the Uefa Nations League.
Kenny Archer in Sarajevo

Uefa Nations League Group B3: Bosnia-Herzegovina v Northern Ireland (Stadium Grbavica, Sarajevo, 7.45pm Irish time)

THE bitter, bloody histories of the places these two teams represent should preclude any loose use of language about the importance of this match.

Besides, a third defeat in this section for the visitors would not mean their last game, at home to Austria on November 18, will definitely be a ‘dead rubber’, at least not unless Franco Foda’s side take something off the Bosnians in Vienna three days earlier. Nor would a home win entirely secure the hosts’ progress to the top tier of the Nations League.

And even in the event of such an outcome, which would probably result in demotion to the third tier for the second incarnation of this format, O’Neill is determined to keep such a fate in proper perspective.

Although he insisted “our aim is to win our last two games and keep ourselves alive in this group”, no sporting contest is ‘life or death’, certainly not in this new competition.

It would be harsh to label it soccer’s equivalent of the McKenna Cup, given that there is the chance of going on to secure a spot at Euro 2020 – but O’Neill pointed out that 20 more places remain to be fought for in the Euro qualifiers proper which begin next spring.

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On the subject of battling for places, unusually for him, O’Neill seemed to confirm there would be “changes” in order to freshen the team up”, even though options may appear limited, especially in attack.

Already without Kyle Lafferty, Niall McGinn, and Jamie Ward, the boss then lost Will Grigg to a hamstring injury, sustained late in the 1-0 loss to Austria on Friday night after the Wigan player almost rescued a point with a clever back-header against the far post.

On the upside, Liam Boyce trained yesterday morning after recovering from the knee problem that prevented him playing any part in Vienna.

As regards alterations, Jordan Jones or Gavin Whyte could come into a wide midfield role, with Stuart Dallas reverting to the left if need be and Shane Ferguson missing out.

An alternative could see either newbie Kyle Vassell or Boyce getting a start up front, with Josh Magennis operating on the right side of attack.

Given O’Neill’s ability to surprise, it’s not unthinkable that he might give Conor McLaughlin or Aaron Hughes a start at right-back and push McNair into a midfield role.

Hughes, who turns 39 next months, played in this city 16 years ago with Newcastle United in a Champions League third round qualifier, helping the Magpies to a 1-0 win against Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, although the game actually took place in the larger Kosevo stadium.

The history of this stadium is more off-pitch than on-pitch, at least in recent international terms, despite the domestic dominance of host club Zeljeznicar Sarajevo – but that’s partly because Bosnia-Herzegovina is such a ‘young’ state. The Grbavica district was the centre of fierce fighting during the lengthy siege of Sarajevo in the early Nineties as Yugoslavia splintered.

This will be only the second competitive senior international played on this pitch by Bosnia, and the sixth overall, with one of those five even involving the ‘A’ team against their U21s.

The previous competitive encounter here did end in a home defeat, just over a year ago, but any optimism from that stat should be tempered by the fact that the hosts scored three times in their 4-3 defeat to eventual World Cup semi-finalists Belgium.

What’s more that is the only one of their last 11 competitive home matches which the Bosnians have lost.

Just as they did in Belfast, they rode their luck/ were more clinical against Austria last month, Edin Dzeko grabbing the only goal of the game in Zenica.

That brought the Roma striker’s senior international tally to 53 in 96 appearances, a return that might amaze those who saw him start his club career at this ground with ‘The Railway Workers’, as a midfielder who wasn’t highly thought of and was soon sold on to Czech side Teplice.

Jimmy Nicholl, now NI’s assistant boss, won’t have particularly happy memories of this place either because 31 years ago yesterday it was the scene for the end of his international career, as an unused sub in a 3-0 loss to Yugoslavia in a Euro ’88 qualifier, his last involvement in a senior squad as a player.

NI finished third in that group, behind England and the Yugoslavs, but above Turkey, the only team they beat.

They seem set for third again in this section, otherwise known as ‘bottom’, unless they can improve the accuracy of their chance conversion compared to the recent past and return to competitive winning ways for the first time in more than a year.

Indeed, they’ve scored just four goals in their last 10 games, half of those in the pre-World Cup friendly win over South Korea, albeit that two of their ‘ducks’ came with under-strength sides in Panama and Costa Rica.

The greater problems could be containing Dzeko, whom O’Neill hailed as “arguably world class”, along with Juventus playmaker Miralem Pjanic.

Bosnia aren’t prolific either, goalless in Friday’s friendly with Turkey, but they must be favoured to make home advantage count.

Northern Ireland (possible): Peacock-Farrell; McNair, Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis; Magennis, Norwood, Davis (capt.), Saville, Dallas; Vassell.

Bosnia-Herzegovina (probable): Sehic; Besic, Vranjes, Zukanovic, Civic; Saric, Cimirot, Pjanic; Visca, Dzeko, Duljevic.

Referee: Mattias Gestranius (Finland).

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