Positive. Wasteful. But ultimately, frustrating. Perhaps the only way to sum up Northern Ireland’s 2-1 Nations League defeat at home to Bosnia.
While Michael O’Neill’s men turned up for their debut Nations League meeting with Bosnia, it was a bitterly disappointing result. The manager named a youthful starting 11 on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Windsor Park, a venue that has been converted into a fortress in recent years, and a venue that countless nations shudder at the thought of.
The away side, despite sitting 12 places behind their opponents in the latest FIFA World Rankings, had conceded just two goals in six games since taking over, with the fixture in Belfast manager Robert Prosinecki’s first competitive game with his new nation. The former Croatia midfielder certainly had no fond memories of Northern Ireland heading into the game, having been on the receiving end of a 4-0 thrashing as Azerbaijan manager in November 2016, and so perhaps it was his desire to avoid a similar result that spurred on his ultimately successful aspirations surrounding this Northern Ireland challenge.
Bosnia, led by the imperious figure of Edin Dzeko – who earned a record-equalling 94th cap for his country – were certainly a victim of the daunting atmosphere in Belfast, yet it was the home side who were their own worst enemy on the day. The Roma forward was kept relatively quiet by a resolute Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans, yet perhaps was the most crucial aspect to his team by stealing the attention of the two centre-backs and allowing his teammates to roam free.
In a first competitive fixture since the World Cup playoff heartbreak ten months ago, fans could be forgiven to once again point the finger at an utterly miserable refereeing decision for their latest hiccup, where a seemingly certain penalty shout from George Saville was turned down in the opening kicks of the game. An inevitable Steven Davis penalty would have sent the noisy Belfast crowd into raptures at such an early stage, yet it wasn’t meant to be in a crowded Windsor Park, where many fans – both at the game and watching on from afar – will surely be questioning the role of the ‘additional assistant referees’ as they are supposedly known, who stand awkwardly behind each goal in a failed attempt to spot something their superior has missed.
The home side cannot simply, however, lay such blame on one decision, when their decisions within the match could often be placed under the microscope. With the hugely underrated and ever-impressive Michael McGovern watching on from the bench, Leeds United’s shot-stopper Bailey Peacock-Farrell was handed the responsibility of the number one jersey, and while it wouldn’t be fair in any means to blame the young goalkeeper for the fragility at the back, one must be questioning whether Northern Ireland would have come out on top if McGovern was between the sticks. Two simply horrible goals were the major reason that the home side fell to a level of opposition that they are so clearly able to overcome.
The other major reason was the lack of composure in front of goal. Northern Ireland registered an incredible 26 shots on goal, compared to Bosnia’s five. 26:5. The away side scored with two of their three shots on target. O’Neill’s men also finished the entertaining encounter with a colossal 18 corners, yet the less said about those the better, other than the fact that Will Grigg squeezed in a goal from almost the only delivery that arrived into the box, with the rest failing to take advantage of the height of Cathcart and Kyle Lafferty due to the hugely unsuccessful short corner routine.
Up front and it undoubtedly wasn’t Lafferty’s day, with the introduction of Liam Boyce and Grigg creating the only goal of the day for the home side, giving O’Neill a much-needed yet highly frustrating headache surrounding selection for upcoming games. The manager may opt for two up front considering the lack of success Lafferty faced in a tough test with Bosnia, yet not only is a formation dilemma on hand, but one involving personnel, with Josh Magennis also eyeing a starting role given his promising start to club football at Bolton this season.
Youngster Jamal Lewis undeniably needs more time to prove himself, and has big boots to fill after the loss of Chris Brunt, yet further forward and O’Neill can draw confidence from the display of his midfielders. Davis, despite a simply astonishing lack of club football for Southampton this campaign, was his usual, composed and capable self, with Saville and Oliver Norwood proving their abilities by dominating a midfield involving all the class and technical skill of Miralem Pjanic of Juventus.
Now certainly isn’t the time to worry, yet the fact that O’Neill’s side have now won just three of their last four home games, as many as they had in their previous 21 at their beloved Windsor Park. Moreover, Northern Ireland have now won just one of their last eight games, after five consecutive victories in 2017, and have conceded in four consecutive home games for the first time since 2013.
Fortunately for the boisterous Green and White Army, who were once again on fine form and a credit to their nation, the positives outweigh the negatives, and Michael O’Neill has enough time to resurrect the minor issues affecting his side ahead of a busy winter schedule, where they travel to Austria and Bosnia in October in the search for a first UEFA Nations League victory.