Lafferty blocked from Accies appearance

Kyle Lafferty will not be able to play for Rangers against Hamilton Academicals this weekend after the Irish Football Association moved to block him.

The IFA have elected to invoke world governing body FIFA's five-day rule, after Lafferty was a late withdrawal from the Northern Ireland squad for their Nations League games against Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Boss Michael O'Neill expressed his disappointment with the decision last week and the IFA has written to Rangers to say the forward cannot play on Sunday.

Under the current rules players who withdraw injured from international duty can be prevented from playing for their club for a further five days after the end of the international window.

Lafferty told Northern Ireland that he had an Achilles injury but, speaking before the match with Austria in Vienna, the Northern Ireland boss O'Neill indicated he was not impressed.

"Kyle had an Achilles problem, we knew he had an Achilles problem in September," said O'Neill.

"I plan to have a chat [with him] but not before the game. There's not another international after this until November so there's plenty of time to have that conversation."

The IFA have not seemingly moved to block Lafferty from turning out for Steven Gerrard's team on Sunday.

In a statement, the association said they had contacted the Premiership side and added: "As the player did not comply with the call up, the player is in breach and as a result, the Association is invoking the Fifa regulation (Fifa Regulations for the status and transfer of players, Annexe 1, Section 5)."

Rangers are 1/3 to win at Hamilton on Sunday, with Access 8/1 and the draw priced at 4/1.

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O’Neill rues missed opportunities

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill accepts that his side need to be more clinical in taking their chances if they are to turn their fortunes around.

A 2-0 defeat to Bosnia in Sarajevo made it three losses out of three games played in the UEFA Nations League for the Irish, leaving O'Neill frustrated that his team had been unable to get on the scoresheet when it mattered.

He told reporters: "We don't have that player who can win you games when it's tight," he said.

"So when opportunities come our way, we have to take them – in these three games we have had numerous chances but we've not taken them.

"There were positive aspects of the performance, but we're still a work in progress and there's aspects of the display that need to be addressed.

"It was not an experienced team and hopefully these games will make us more game savvy when the European qualifiers come around."

In the Nations League, Northern Ireland have lost twice to Bosnia, while also being edged out 1-0 in Austria, where West Ham forward Marko Arnautovic scored the only goal of the game.

The final game in the competition for O'Neill's men comes on Sunday 18th November, when Austria are the visitors to Belfast.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland are 250/1 to win Euro 2020, with the Republic of Ireland priced at 150/1, while Wales can be backed at 66/1.

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NI ‘good enough to compete’

Michael O'Neill suggests Northern Ireland must have more belief if they are going to qualify for Euro 2020.

Friday's 1-0 loss to Austria in Vienna has left Northern Ireland in a relegation battle in the Nations League, but O'Neill is already turning his mind towards the European qualifiers, which begin in earnest in the spring.

Marko Arnautovic's 71st-minute goal was enough to settle Friday's contest in Austria's favour, though Northern Ireland came close to an equaliser when substitute Will Grigg hit the post with an 84th-minute header.

Northern Ireland were understandably less gung-ho away from home, but O'Neill has encouraged his side to be braver in possession, even against top-class opponents.

"We're not going to come here and dominate the ball against a team that is predominantly made up of players from the Bundesliga and the Premier League," he said.

"We had eight Championship players on the pitch and three Premier League players on the pitch. That's the make-up of our squad."

Despite the loss, O'Neill suggests his side should be able to take encouragement away from Vienna, having gone toe-to-toe with a useful team.

"It is a step up for a lot of our players to come to this kind of arena against these kinds of players," he added.

"They have to realise they are good enough to compete, they are good enough to play at this level.

"That's the challenge, but for some of them, they are at the very infancy of their international careers and sometimes having that self-belief and ability to go and play on the front foot, it takes time and experience and they'll be better for having played here."

Northern Ireland are 13/2 to win in Bosnia on Monday, the home side are 11/20 while the draw is 5/2.

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Lafferty snub for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has confirmed that Kyle Lafferty has ruled himself out of the squad for their Nations League double-header.

The 31-year-old striker was expected to link up with the squad ahead of the games against Austria and Bosnia & Herzegovia during this international fortnight.

However, after Lafferty was left out of Glasgow Rangers' 3-1 win against Hearts on Sunday, O'Neill revealed that the player contacted him later that evening to confirm that he would not be on the plane to Austria on Monday.

O'Neill said: "I am disappointed that he has ruled himself out of the two games but our focus is on the players who are with us and I will address this situation after the international period."

The news will be a blow to O'Neill and the Northern Ireland squad given that Lafferty is one of their most experienced players and was on target in his 68th cap when the side lost 2-1 against Bosnia at Windsor Park last month.

His absence has opened the door to 25-year-old Rotherham striker Kyle Vassell, who has won his first call up to Northern Ireland for the upcoming matches.

"I met the gaffer (O'Neill) earlier in the year at Blackpool and he said I wasn't far away," Vassell said. "This time around I've been fortunate enough to make the squad, so I'm delighted."

Northern Ireland are 13/2 to defeat Austria on Friday night, while the hosts are priced at 11/20 and the draw is available at 3/1.

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O’Neill keen to freshen things up

Michael O'Neill does not anticipate making too many changes to his Northern Ireland side for Tuesday's friendly against Israel.

Northern Ireland began their Nations League campaign on Saturday with a disappointing 2-1 home defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina and O'Neill is keen to use Tuesday's match as a way of rebuilding confidence in his squad.

Israel lost their first Nations League game as well – 1-0 against Albania – and have been defeated in their last three matches, having also been beaten by Romania and Spain since winning 1-0 against Liechtenstein 11 months ago.

Northern Ireland are 1/1 to beat Israel and 9/2 to win the match 1-0 while a goalless draw in Belfast is available at 6/1.

O'Neill said: "It gives me an opportunity to look at some aspects but we're not in a position where we can just change nine players.

"To do that we'd need to ask players to play out of position and when you bring players in you want to give them the best chance to do well, so it's important to put them into a team which is cohesive and as strong as possible.

"There will be changes but it is not just a case of starting the players who didn't play on Saturday.

"Any changes that are made will not be a reflection on performance but just on giving a bit of freshness to the team."

UEFA Nations League: Bosnia picks Ireland’s Pocket

Northern Ireland 1-2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

There was heartbreak for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park today as Bosnia won a game dominated for long periods by the hosts in this Group B3 opener.

A goal in either half from Haris Duljevic and Elvis Saric were more than enough to win this game, but it was harsh on the Irish; a late Will Grigg goal was not much of a consolation. The Green and Whites are still smarting at the way they missed out on Russia 2018 and this result won’t have cheered them up much.

But it was another good watch for fans. The UEFA Nations League already looks like a big success with the top teams in Europe clearly relishing these games with a competitive edge.

Highlights of the game

Roared on by a passionate Windsor Park crowd, the Irish had much the better of the first half. The fans were on their feet in the very first minute shouting for a penalty: the Bosnian defence tried to play the ball out but George Saville took advantage. He was then appeared to be tripped in the box, but the ref was unmoved.

As Northern Ireland pressed, Niall McGinn beat Eldar Civic to the ball and released a shot which Bosnia goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic pushed away. Saville was so close to turning in a ball from Conor McLaughlin, and then striker Kyle Lafferty took the ball off his skipper Steven Davis, who was in a good position to shoot.

Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic has been a pivotal figure for Bosnia, and as the visitors gradually came into the half he began to put himself about, earning a yellow card for a late tackle on Saville.

Ireland keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell was making his competitive debut for his country, and he was called into action after a quiet half-hour when Bosnia danger man Edin Dzeko fired straight at him from 12 yards.

If that was a warning, the Irish didn’t heed it and Bosnia were ahead five minutes later. Pjanic released Dzeko with a superb ball down the left, and the Roma man crossed from the by-line; Peacock-Farrell hesitated and Haris Duljevic beat four defenders to the ball to slide it home.

The Irish will wonder how they went in 0-1 down at halftime.

And they’ll wonder how they stayed 0-1 down when McGinn put in a superb cross for Stuart Dallas, who had all the time and space he needed to head home. But instead he chose to volley down into the ground, and Sehic tipped the ball over.

Lafferty had a great chance to score moments later but he shot straight at the Bosnia stopper. But as the Green and Whites strained to draw level, a moment of disaster dealt a savage blow to their hopes.

Craig Cathcart’s headed back pass was woefully short, and in nipped Elvis Saric to beat Peacock-Farrell to the ball and slide it into the empty net.

You’d expect that to knock the stuffing out of the Irish, but they’re a tough lot and they refused to lie down. But as they pressed they almost went three down, when Bosnia broke and Duljevic curled a beauty of a shot which crashed back off the post.

UEFA Nations League  results: Will Grigg ends Northern Ireland's run of 6 hours without a goal in competitive football

Northern Ireland’s Will Grigg scores their first goal vs Bosnia

Michael O’Neill’s men finally got some reward, deep into injury time, when substitute Will Grigg fired home from a corner.

It was hard on the hosts but a great start to the campaign for Bosnia, and after next week’s UEFA Nations League 2018 results, we’ll know just how great.

Key statistics

The pre-match us odds had the visitors as slight favourites at 2.61, and this was a classic smash-and-grab.

Ireland dominated the first half with 65 per cent possession and nine shots to two, but both sides had two shots on target. And the second half was more of the same with the shot count increasing to 26 to five. But the crucial statistic is the only one that matters in the end.

The hosts had failed to score in five from the last six games, so Grigg’s late strike was a welcome relief at least. But it’s three successive home defeats for Northern Ireland for the first time since 1995.

And Bosnia boss Robert Prosinecki won his first game against Northern Ireland, having lost twice when managing Azerbaijan.

 What’s next?

Northern Ireland's Bailey Peacock-Farrell conceded two goals in UEFA Nations League vs Bosnia

Northern Ireland’s Bailey Peacock-Farrell disheartened after the match vs Bosnia

Group B3 is going to be a competitive battle with only 16 places separating Austria, Northern Ireland and Bosnia in the FIFA rankings.

Bosnia are the lowest-ranked at 39, with Ireland at 27 and Austria 23. But UEFA Nations League 2018 odds on Bosnia and Herzegovina to get promotion to League A will have shortened after this result. There’s plenty of action to come, though, and Prosinecki’s team hosts Austria on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland have a friendly with Israel before meeting Austria in October, when they’ll need a better conversion ratio than one in 26!

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O’Neill reveals Euro 2020 plan

Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill is looking to use their Nations League campaign to help them secure automatic qualification for Euro 2020.

The Northern Irish reached their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup when they qualified for Euro 2016 in France and they went one to impress as they reached the last-16 before narrowly losing out 1-0 against Wales.

They then just missed out on a place at this summer's World Cup in Russia, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Switzerland in their two-legged play-off.

Qualification for Euro 2020 is the next target for O'Neill's men, but they have the new Nations League to negotiate with Bosnia and Herzegovina up first at Windsor Park on Saturday, while Austria are also in their group.

Northern Ireland go into the Bosnia match on the back of a run of one win in seven and O'Neill is looking for the players to use the Nations League to find some momentum for their Euro 2020 qualification campaign, which will start next March.

He said: "It's a good competition for a nation of our size. To organise quality friendlies is difficult in the current climate and it's certainly very difficult against the top teams – we've found that a big challenge in recent years.

"For the likes of ourselves and other smaller nations, they will welcome it. We have two tough games home and away against Bosnia and Austria but, equally, we are fully aware of the fact a good Nations League can give us a little bit of a safety net in terms of qualification for Euro 2020.

"When that campaign comes around, our aim will be to qualify automatically, but the significance of the Nations League and the sort of back-door entry will be very important. We've emphasised this to the players, they are fully focused and understand the format of the tournament.

"We have to treat it as a qualifier. If you could be promoted to League A, while the opposition would be extremely difficult, it would be fantastic for a country like ourselves to be in that type of company."

Northern Ireland are 21/10 to win on Saturday, while Bosnia are priced at 7/4 and the draw is available at 2/1.

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O’Neill rues Brunt retirement

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admits it was a blow to learn that West Brom midfielder Chris Brunt was going to retire from international football.

Brunt, 33, won 65 international caps and scored three goals after making his debut against Switzerland in 2004.

A knee injury deprived the influential midfielder of his part at Euro 2016, when Northern Ireland ended a 30-year wait for a major international tournament appearance.

Brunt was quickly back in the fold, as the much-improved Northern Ireland story under manger O'Neill continued with a journey that almost took them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

He played his final game for his country in the play-off second leg against Switzerland last November, a scoreless draw that saw the Swiss progress 1-0 on aggregate by way of a controversially awarded penalty at Windsor Park.

O'Neill left Brunt out of his recent squads to give the player time to consider his international future but he has now received the verdict he was hoping to avoid.

"I am disappointed Chris is retiring as I believe he still has much to offer the team, however I completely understand his decision to spend a bit more time with his young family and to concentrate on his club career," said O'Neill.

"I want to thank him for everything he gave me on the pitch. He was a model professional and his contribution to the Northern Ireland team over the past 14 years will be remembered for a long time."

West Brom are 21/10 to win away at Middlesbrough in Friday's Championship clash. Tony Pulis' side are 13/10 to get one over on his former club, while the draw is 9/4.

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Smyth tipped for bright future

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill says that Paul Smyth who scored against South Korea has a big future in the game.

The 21-year-old came off the bench to score the winner in a 2-1 victory in the friendly and O'Neill was sure that the Queens Park Rangers winger will be a key member of the squad in the years to come.

He said after the game: "It is fabulous for the boy. He loved it, you could just see.

"His enthusiasm is infectious and the boys love him. He's a player with a big future, but he has to work hard.

“He's still very small, he's still very light but he's got a huge heart for the game and we're delighted with him."

Kwon Chang-hoon had given the visitors the lead at Windsor Park but the home side equalised through a Kim Min-jae own goal after he diverted a Jamie Ward cross into his own net.

The scored remained level until five minutes from time when Smyth struck to become the first Northern Irish player in 17 years to score on his debut.

O'Neill said afterwards that he was pleased with the win and the way the team came back into the game after conceding an early goal.

Northern Ireland will use this and other forthcoming games to plan for Euro 2020 qualifying which begins next year.

South Korea meanwhile play Poland on Tuesday as they build up to the World Cup finals in Russia later this year. They are in a group with Sweden, Mexico and Germany.

South Korea are 4/1 to win against Poland who are 8/11 with the draw 5/2.

South Korea are 2/7 to be knocked out of the World Cup in the group stages.

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O’Neill looks to youth

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill says that he may be forced to go with youth for the side's friendly with South Korea on Saturday.

In the first ever meeting between the teams, O'Neill will be without skipper Steven Davis while there are also doubts over whether Naill McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Stuart Dallas will be fit to play.

The manager, who recently signed a contract extension after an approach from Scotland, said he may be forced to take players from the Under-21 squad who themselves play two qualifiers in a bid to reach Euro 2019.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "We have to be careful with the players given the time of year it is and the nature of the game.

"The game will provide an opportunity for some of those players like Jordan Jones and Jamal Lewis and one or two others.

"The Under-21s play on Thursday so there is always the opportunity to add one or two of those players from that squad into the senior game as well."

O'Neill stressed that any players who are drafted into the senior squad will be there because they can contribute to the team, not simply to gain experience.

The South Korea game is Northern Ireland's only friendly before the end of the season. They are 15/8 to win the game with South Korea 13/8 and the draw is priced at 2/1.

Though they missed out on qualification for the World Cup in Russia, O'Neill's side play two teams who did get through in warm-up games before the tournament starts.

They play Panama in Panama City on 29th May before travelling to San Jose to take on Costa Rica on 3rd June.

Panama are 8/1 to get knocked out of the World Cup in the round of 16 with Costa Rica at 4/1.

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