BOSS Eddie Howe was tonight left to rue a “harsh” defeat after missed opportunities had proved costly for promotion-chasing Cherries.

The Dean Court outfit produced an improved performance – particularly during a bright and inventive first half – but failed to make the most of a series of early chances.

Recalled striker Matt Tubbs was denied by a fine save before Lewis Grabban and Tubbs were both unable to hit the target when clean through on goal.

After weathering the storm, play-off contenders Coventry punished Cherries’ profligacy when ace marksman Leon Clarke lashed them into the lead against the run of play.

Cherries continued to dominate possession after the break but there was no way past City keeper Joe Murphy.

And the hosts were condemned to a third successive League One defeat – which saw them drop out of the play-off zone – when Sky Blues captain Carl Baker coolly converted a late penalty.

Howe told the Daily Echo: “It was a harsh one for us. I thought the lads were excellent for the majority of the game.

“We created a number of chances early in the game and really wanted to take one of those when we were well on top. It was one of those days when we got hit on the counter with a sucker-punch.

“We put a lot of balls into their box in the second half, asked a lot of questions and the ball never fell for us. The pleasing thing in terms of the reaction from Saturday is that we created a lot of chances.”

Manager Howe made three changes after the 1-0 loss against Sheffield United as Tubbs replaced Brett Pitman up front, with Josh McQuoid and Wes Fogden given the nod on the flanks. Matt Ritchie switched to left-back, with injured Marc Pugh and Brighton loanee Marcos Painter missing out.

The match stopped almost before it had even started when Coventry defender Carl Dickinson required lengthy treatment to a suspected broken nose following an aerial collision with Fogden.

Once play finally resumed with the bloodied Dickinson continuing, Cherries looked revitalised.

Playing with width, the hosts were threatening virtually every time they went forward in an exciting opening.

After City skipper Baker had forced a routine save from Shwan Jalal, opposing keeper Murphy produced a sharp one-handed parry to repel Tubbs’s sweet volley after a powerful Ritchie cross.

Cherries maintained the high tempo and Murphy should have been tested when Grabban was found by Fogden’s clever header, but the leading scorer fired high and wide from eight yards.

Frontman Grabban was then denied by a fine defensive block after he had been sent clear following a surging run and precision pass from Eunan O’Kane.

The slick speed of Cherries’ play was causing problems for Coventry and Howe’s men should have been rewarded on 20 minutes, only for Tubbs to shoot agonisingly wide after latching on to Dickinson’s gift of a headed backpass.

Below par against Preston and thwarted by Sheffield United in back-to-back losses, Cherries looked far better for Howe’s changes, with Ritchie, McQuoid and Fogden all catching the eye in wide areas.

But for all their promising work, they still had nothing to show for it.

It took an exceptional save from Jalal to prevent Coventry bagging a classic goal against the run of play when Franck Moussa unleashed a 15-yard rocket.

But Jalal was powerless to stop the Sky Blues edging ahead in first-half stoppage time. Battling for a long ball, strong City striker Clarke fended off Steve Cook before hammering the visitors into a surprise lead.

With it all to do after the break, Cherries started on the front foot and the impressive Ritchie’s low cutback forced a desperate defensive clearance.

Jalal was again sharp when diving low to hold a fierce drive from Clarke, who had been picked out by Baker.

Arter fired over following good work by McQuoid before Howe decided to refresh his attack, introducing Pitman and Ryan Fraser in a bid to get back in the game.

Grabban saw a goalbound effort well blocked by James Bailey before McQuoid’s swerving hit from the rebound flew wide. Fraser, cutting in from the right, was next to try his luck but he shot straight at Murphy.

With his final throw of the dice, Howe called on veteran targetman Steve Fletcher.

But Cherries’ big task became mountainous when the Sky Blues doubled their advantage six minutes from time. Referee Simon Hooper had no hesitation in pointing to the spot after David Bell’s cross had appeared to hit Grabban’s hand, with City skipper Baker doing the rest with a cool penalty.

Pitman saw an effort hacked off the line as Cherries pressed late on but there was no way back as Coventry defended resolutely and saw out time.

Cherries: (4-4-2) Jalal 6.5; Francis 6, Cook 6, Seaborne 6, Ritchie 8*; Fogden 7.5 (Fraser, 72), Arter 6, O’Kane 7.5, McQuoid 7 (Fletcher, 80); Grabban 6, Tubbs 6.5 (Pitman, 72). Unused subs: Partington, Hughes, MacDonald, Allsop (g/k).

Booked: Arter, Ritchie

Sky Blues: (4-5-1) Murphy; Christie, Cameron, Martin, Dickinson; Baker, Bailey, Jennings, Moussa (Edjenguele, 87), McSheffrey (Bell, 75); L Clarke (McDonald, 90). Unused subs: J Clarke, Thomas, Fleck, Dunn (g/k).

Booked: Bailey, McSheffrey, Edjenguele, McDonald

Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire)

Attendance: 7,411 (including 727 away supporters)