Belfast Telegraph

Ace Dzeko's touch of class too hot for Northern Ireland to handle

Bosnia 2 N Ireland 0

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland were once again left to rue missed chances and a defensive error as Bosnia and Herzegovina were gifted yet another victory in the Nations League.

Two mistakes, and the fact Michael O'Neill's men only converted one of their 26 opportunities, allowed Bosnia to leave Belfast with three points last month.

Last night at the Stadion Grbavica in Sarajevo, Northern Ireland struck the post three times, George Saville could have netted a hat trick in the first half, Gavin Whyte should have at least doubled his international goalscoring tally and Jamal Lewis slipped at a crucial time which resulted in Edin Dzeko being fed the ball to score Bosnia's opener.

Dzeko scored again midway through to cap a wonderful homecoming as he started his career at this tight, compact ground before going on to star for both Manchester City and Roma.

Northern Ireland, pointless in Group B3, are now staring at relegation and a drop down to the third tier of the Nations League, while Bosnia can confirm top spot, a play-off place and promotion with a point against Austria next month in Vienna.

Even if O'Neill's men defeat Austria in their final Nations League game on Sunday, November 18 at Windsor Park, it may not be enough to keep them in League B if the Austrians pick up at least a point in their match with Bosnia in Vienna.

Boss O'Neill made two changes from the side that were defeated in Vienna with Liam Boyce, having recovered sufficiently from his knee injury, starting up front instead of Josh Magennis and Corry Evans coming in for Shane Ferguson.

It was a special night for 28-year old Evans as he was not only brought back into the starting XI, but regular captain Steven Davis handed him the skipper's armband on the occasion of his 50th cap. And, along with brother Jonny, they have become the first UK siblings since Gary and Phil Neville to make a half century of international caps.

Bosnia coach Robert Prosinecki made just one change to the side that defeated Northern Ireland in that first game.

Anderlecht's Ognjen Vranjes replaced Standard Liege's Gojko Cimirot, who dropped to the bench.

It was Millwall's Saville who had three great opportunities to open his international account and score Northern Ireland first away goal in six matches.

Inside 90 seconds, he was played in by Davis but struck his shot over the bar.

On 15 minutes, Davis was once again the provider when, after excellent build up play from the back involving Boyce and Corry Evans, the Southampton midfielder found Saville with space in the box, however his side footed effort went wide of the post.

The Middlesbrough new boy then struck the post five minutes later with a volley on the turn after an excellent cross from Jamal Lewis.

It was brilliant technique and so unfortunate.

In between those chances, Bosnia threatened twice with Edin Visca failing to convert a tantalising Haris Duljevic cross at the back post and Dzeko, with Northern Ireland losing possession in their own half and Paddy McNair being caught out of position, controlling a ball from Pjanic beautifully on his chest before firing over the bar.

However, Dzeko made no mistake on 27 minutes when Northern Ireland presented Bosnia with the golden chance to score.

Left back Lewis, who had started so well, slipped at a vital time as he was about to clear his lines and this allowed Visca to nip in, cut into the box and then pass to the former Manchester City striker, who slotted the ball past Peacock-Farrell.

It was deeply frustrating for Northern Ireland and, just like in Belfast, a defensive error cost them dear and Bosnia capitalised.

Dzeko had the ball into the back of the net again three minutes later after he volleyed home following a delicate free kick chip from Pjanic but Finnish referee Mattias Gestranius ruled it out for offside.

However, TV replays appeared to show Dzeko was being played onside by Lewis. A let off for Northern Ireland.

Norwood was booked on 33 minutes for bringing Saric crashing down 25 yards from goal, and he is now suspended from the next competitive match against Austria as he was also cautioned in Vienna.

With the resulting free kick, Juventus star Miralem Pjanic nearly made it 2-0 with an effort which went inches over the bar.

Boyce was proving to be an excellent targetman, holding the ball up well for his onrushing midfielders, but Northern Ireland couldn't find the breakthrough before half time. Bosnia pushed forward at the start of the second period, however the Northern Ireland defence was resolute - although Peacock-Farrell had to be alert and race out to stop a Dzeko shot on 56 minutes and then did well to save the follow up from Saric.

In an effort to add a fresh injection of pace, O'Neill brought on Gavin Whyte for Norwood on 58 minutes.

Eight minutes later Northern Ireland thought they'd equalised through the former Crusaders man, but the 22-year old inexplicably missed his glorious chance by striking the post rather than seeing the ball nestle in the net.

Dallas had crossed for the Oxford United man in the box, he didn't get a clean header on the ball but it still needed cleared off the line, but when presented with what appeared to be gaping goal to shoot at, Whyte hit the post.

Bosnia made Northern Ireland pay once again as, after Kyle Vassell had been introduced into the action for McNair, Dzeko curled home his second of the night on 73 minutes.

It was a well worked goal, and crisp finish by Dzeko, but Northern Ireland were still smarting from that missed opportunity by Whyte.

Peacock-Farrell made a strong save to keep the scoreline respectable and then O'Neill made his final change bringing on Magennis for Boyce, who had run his heart out up front.

Saville had a shot pushed away by Ibrahim Sehic for a corner and, in injury time, Northern Ireland hit the post for a third time when a Whyte cross deflected off a defender.

It just wasn't Northern Ireland's night and yet again it was a case of what might have been for the men in white.

The Green and White Army, who took up residency in a small corner of the ground, sung their hearts out and deserved at least a goal - and even 20 minutes after the final whistle they were still singing loud and proud.

Boss O'Neill must now turn his attention to the high-profile derby match against the Republic next month at the Aviva Stadium before concluding the Nations League campaign when Austria visit Windsor Park three days later.

BOSNIA: Sehic, Vranjes, Sunjic, Zukanovic, Civic, Besic (Cimirot, 90 mins), Pjanic, Saric, Visca (Milosevic, 88 mins), Dzeko, Duljevic (Zakaric, 75 mins)

Unused subs: Begovic, Todorovic, Nastic, Prcic, Bajic, Kodro, Krunic, Kjosevski.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell, McNair (Vassell, 71 mins), Cathcart, J Evans, Lewis, Norwood (Whyte, 58 mins), C Evans, Davis, Saville, Dallas, Boyce (Magennis, 80 mins)

Unused subs: Carson, McLaughlin, Smith, Ferguson, Jones, Hughes, Flanagan, McGovern.

Referee: Mattias Gestranius (Finland)

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