Magennis eyes qualifying charge

Northern Ireland matchwinner Josh Magennis is confident his side can maintain their form and challenge for a top-two finish in European Championship qualifying Group C.

Magennis netted a late clincher as the Irish edged out Belarus 2-1 in Belfast to make it two wins out of two in a group which also includes both Germany and the Netherlands.

Those two major rivals met in Amsterdam on Sunday, with Nico Shulz netting a last-minute winner for the visitors, as the Dutch failed to build on a 4-0 home win over Belarus in their opening qualifier.

And Bolton forward Magennis is relishing the remainder of the qualifying campaign, with Michael O'Neill's men facing trips to both Estonia and Belarus in early June.

He told reporters after his crucial intervention at Windsor Park: "It's a cliche and cheesy, but the main thing was the three points and we want 12 points out of the first four games and then we can head towards September, October and November.

"We have started off well and now we have to look forward to June.

"It is massive and we want to stay there (in the top two) and we truly believe we can do it.

"It's going to be tough and maybe tougher than we expected and maybe we will have to dig deep. I also say 'why not us?'. The boys know each other inside out and we just have to play to the best of our ability."

Northern Ireland are currently priced at 6/1 to finish in the top two in Group C, while they are 1/9 to miss out on a top-two spot.

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O’Neill eyes Irish improvements

Michael O'Neill was pleased to see his Northern Ireland side earn a 2-0 win over Estonia, but admitted that there were things his team could improve on.

Goals from Niall McGinn and Steve Davis ensured victory in the first qualifier of their European Championship campaign, with head coach O'Neill already thinking ahead to the meeting with Belarus in Belfast on Sunday.

He told Sky Sports: "A good win for us, it was never going to be an easy and straight forward game.

"It was all about getting that first goal, we had opportunities in the first half that we should have done better with.

"Then the longer the game goes on the more belief they had because they had something to hold on to, but we got the goal and we could have scored a few more.

"There are a lot of things we are pleased about, but there are things there we need to improve on, there's no doubt about that.

"We got into the final third a lot, but at times the final ball was not good enough."

Northern Ireland have met Belarus once previously, with the hosts winning 3-0 in Belfast in May 2016 thanks goals from Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg.

The Irish are 3/4 to win again on Sunday and are 15/4 to claim a 1-0 victory, with the hosts 5/6 to keep a clean sheet.

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England handed favourable draw

England have a great chance of qualifying for Euro 2020 after being drawn in a winnable group but Northern Ireland must face Germany and the Netherlands.

Gareth Southgate's side, who reached the semi-finals at World Cup 2018 before beating Spain and Croatia in the Nations Cup, are in Group A alongside the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo.

However, Northern Ireland have a very difficult task as they are in Group C with the Dutch and Germany, as well as Estonia and Belarus.

Germany failed to progress from their group in Russia in the summer before being relegated from the top tier of the Nations League.

However, Joachim Low's side remain an excellent team while Ronald Koeman has galvanised the Netherlands after they failed to qualify for World Cup 2018.

The Republic of Ireland, who parted company with Martin O'Neill last month and appointed Mick McCarthy for a second spell in charge, have been placed in Group D along with Switzerland, Denmark, Georgia and Gibraltar.

Scotland are in the same group as World Cup 2018 semi-finalists Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino, while Wales will meet Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan.

World Cup 2018 winners France have been handed a reasonable draw with Iceland, Turkey, Albania, Moldova and Andorra in their group.

France are 4/1 to win Euro 2020, while England can be backed at 7/1, Spain at 9/2 and Euro 2016 winners Portugal at 10/1.

Group A: England, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo.
Group B: Portugal, Ukraine, Serbia, Lithuania, Luxembourg.
Group C: Netherlands, Germany, Northern Ireland, Estonia, Belarus.
Group D: Switzerland, Denmark, Republic of Ireland, Georgia, Gibraltar.
Group E: Croatia, Wales, Slovakia, Hungary, Azerbaijan.
Group F: Spain, Sweden, Norway, Romania, Faroe Islands, Malta.
Group G: Poland, Austria, Israel, Slovenia, Macedonia, Latvia.
Group H: France, Iceland, Turkey, Albania, Moldova, Andorra.
Group I: Belgium, Russia, Scotland, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, San Marino.
Group J: Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, Greece, Armenia, Liechtenstein.

Duffy relying on ROI desire

Shane Duffy is adamant there is the qualities within the Republic of Ireland squad to improve their ailing fortunes.

The Boys in Green missed out on World Cup 2018 after a play-off defeat to Denmark but the FAI chose to stick with Martin O'Neill and give him the chance to regenerate an ageing group of players.

O'Neill has introduced a number of new faces to the party but they have struggled to gel, his side claiming just a single point from their three Nations League outings.

Monday sees them head to Aarhus to take on Denmark but first up there is Thursday's derby with Northern Ireland.

A victory would give the Republic a timely boost but Duffy is refusing to lose faith in the squad.

The 26-year-old is one of the few Premier League players at O'Neill's disposal and admits the country does lack quality in certain areas.

However, the defender feels the desire within the camp can more than make up for their shortcomings elsewhere.

"It's going to be tough, gelling and getting the right team again," Duffy told the Brighton Argus. "There are a lot of new players with not many caps. Two years down the line, when the Euros are here, they'll have played a lot more.

"We'll see, you've just got to be patient. It's hard because it's your country and it’s not nice, but we've still got a good squad with good players.

"If we get it together I think we've got a real threat. We've just got to back the manager, back the lads."

He added: "We might be short of a little bit of talent, but we've always got the heart and desire to go and try to win the game."

The Republic are 11/10 to win Thursday's friendly, with the draw 21/10 and NI 10/3.

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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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