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Harsh lesson for O'Neill's men as they lack guile to finish the job

N Ireland 1-2 Bosnia-Herz

Out of luck: Kyle Lafferty shows his frustration as a chance goes to waste
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At least we know Will Grigg's still on fire.

It was hard enough trying to understand how the new UEFA Nations League works . . . now we have to come to terms with how Northern Ireland failed to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For all their dominance reflected in the 64% possession and 26 shots compared to their opponent's five, Michael O'Neill's men just couldn't finish the job in the manner the onlooking Carl Frampton would have been proud of.

It's not a defeat that will leave O'Neill losing much sleep but we should be a little concerned at the number of cracks appearing at Fortress Windsor.

While the win record stands at one in their last eight, Northern Ireland have lost three of their past four home games, as many as they had in their previous 21 on home soil.

And they were the architects of their own downfall here. A failure to take any of the chances was concerning, the manner of the goals conceded was alarming.

With Chris Brunt leaving the international stage, O'Neill needs to take a fresh look at his options but with a number of his key men lacking game time with their clubs it's not an ideal picture for him.

But spare us a meaningless international friendly, the Nations League may be a head melter when you try to work it out but at least the players can target League A and a chance to swim with the big boys. Unfortunately that's a long shot now.

A Euro 2020 spot may not be a realistic prospect via the Nations League route but O'Neill will always learn more about his men from competitive fixtures.

The men in green made an aggressive start, moving with all the momentum of a Glider bus making its way past traffic on Belfast's gridlocked streets. But the first minute penalty shout was turned down by Czech referee Pavel Kralovec. Middlesbrough's £8million man George Saville was tripped by Ervin Zukanovic but for some bizarre reason the official ignored pleas from the home players and fans.

After the World Cup play-off penalty woe against Switzerland you would have thought Northern Ireland were due better fortune.

Bosnia looked nervous and disjointed while the hosts pressed high and looked hungry and menacing with Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood searching for openings.

Northern Ireland's set piece count was high in the opening stages and the full-backs Conor McLaughlin and Jamal Lewis, making his competitive debut, surged forward.

Bosnia's dangerman Edin Dzeko may as well have been sitting in a Westlink traffic jam as Niall McGinn created space and stung the palms of keeper Ibrahim Sehic. Saville almost got on the end of McLaughlin's cross and Stuart Dallas' effort whistled past the post as Bosnia resembled a boxer on the ropes desperate to hear the bell.

Saville is a class act, showing a great awareness of space and his link up play is impressive.

Leeds keeper, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, on his competitive debut, dealt with Dzeko's shot in a what was a warning to the hosts, but they failed to heed it.

Northern Ireland, renowned for their set piece magic, surely had to make one count but the Bosnia defence were let off the hook. And how many times have you seen teams punished for not converting chances?

The visitors stunned the home crowd in the 37th minute when veteran skipper Dzeko crossed from the right and Haris Duljevic slotted home from close range amid dozing defenders.

McLaughlin failed to stop the cross coming in and Duljevic, on the occasion of his 13th cap, swept home his first international goal. O'Neill will have wondered how his side trailed at the break but it could have been a very different tale had the early penalty been awarded. While the scoreline wasn't pretty, Lewis, still only 20, impressed while the trio of Norwood, Davis and Saville were easy on the eye.

The big criticism was a lack of guile and quality in the final third.

Northern Ireland, wearing black armbands in memory of the legendary Jimmy McIlroy, missed a glorious chance to wipe out the lead early in the second half and Stuart Dallas will still be haunted by that miss from close range.

Northern Ireland, wearing black armbands in memory of the legendary Jimmy McIlroy, missed a glorious chance to wipe out the lead early in the second half and Stuart Dallas will still be haunted by that miss from close range.

The home side kept knocking on the door and Kyle Lafferty should have scored at the back post after collecting Jonny Evans' clever flick on but credit to Sehic who made a brilliant save.

Then disaster . . . a goal gifted to Bosnia, perfectly wrapped with ribbons on top. Craig Cathcart's header was risky and Peacock-Farrell was unable to gather, allowing Elvis Saric to leave his opponents all shook up in the 64th minute.

The young keeper was hesitant and perhaps should have been more assertive with his hands.

For all their dominance, Northern Ireland had given away two sloppy goals.

Liam Boyce, Grigg and then Jamie Ward joined the rescue mission, but in the 76th minute Duljevic almost made it 3-0, rattling the base of the post with a fine curling effort.

The second goal, particularly the manner of it, was a killer blow and it sapped positive energy from the hosts.

Saville had a shot blocked and Sehic made a smart save to foil Boyce as the chances continued to come and go. Grigg slammed the ball home in the third minute of added time after a clever assist from Boyce to spark hopes of a late fightback and he was inches away from getting his foot on the ball to score an equaliser but it wasn't to be.

It was a day when very little went right for Northern Ireland and something special is needed to get their Nations League campaign back on track. There's now a danger rankings could drop ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

Whatever happens tomorrow at home to Israel won't ease the frustration. It's another hard luck story but, as harsh as it sounds, Northern Ireland threw this one away.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell, McLaughlin (Boyce, 70 mins), Evans, Cathcart, Lewis, Norwood, Davis, Saville, McGinn (Ward, 76 mins), Lafferty (Grigg, 69 mins), Dallas. Unused subs: subs Carson, McGovern, Smith, Washington, C Evans, Jones, McNair, Whyte.

BOSNIA: Sehic, Besic, Sunjic, Zukanovic, Civic (Zakaric, 76 mins), Saric (Krunic, 67 mins), Cimirot, Pjanic (Bajic, 83 mins), Visca, Dzeko, Duljevic. Unused subs: Piric, Kjosevski, Nastic, Prcic, Kenan, Krunic, Milosevic.

Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)

Man of the match: Stuart Dallas

Belfast Telegraph

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