Northern Ireland dropped a tough 1-0 loss to Switzerland in the first leg of playoff to see who gets the coveted 2018 World Cup berth.
The Guardians Andy Hunter wrote:” The road to Russia for Northern Ireland has been pot-holed by incompetence. “Dare to Dream” is the slogan of their World Cup campaign but the manner of defeat to Switzerland in the play-off first leg will give Michael O’Neill nightmares.
Northern Ireland were second best on home soil and on the back foot for too long against a team ranked 11th in the world. But they had conceded few clear-cut chances to Switzerland when the Romanian referee, Ovidiu Hategan, ludicrously punished Corry Evans for a deliberate handball that never was.
The Blackburn Rovers midfielder blocked Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley with his back but was somehow adjudged to have handled by an official standing yards away. Ricardo Rodríguez’s confident penalty left Northern Ireland seething and facing a remote prospect of qualifying for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years. They will have to become the first team since England in 2014 to win a competitive game in Switzerland to erase Hategan from the memory bank. A considerable order, given their opponents’ superiority on the night.
“It was disgraceful,” said Corry Evans. “I clearly didn’t put my hand up. It hit me on the back of the shoulder and I’m absolutely gutted. He’s booked me as well, which means I’m out of the second leg as well, which is devastating.”
Corry’s older brother, Jonny, claimed Hategan’s decision was worse than the Thierry Henry handball that cost the Republic of Ireland in 2009. “The ref has made a call that was not there,” he said. “It’s different if he didn’t see it. He’s claimed to see something that did not happen which is the hardest part to take about it.”
Anger and a sense of injustice was justified. It may also be useful in the second leg providing resentment is channelled in the right way, but there is no question that Northern Ireland must improve on the performance here. The excellent Denis Zakaria and Granit Xhaka controlled central midfield and their team dominated possession. As their coach, Vladimir Petkovic, put it: “If we had taken our chances we wouldn’t be talking about the penalty.”
It was a raucous night before the referee’s intervention. The 16,000 green and silver flags that the Irish Football Association had commissioned were waved 15 minutes before kick-off and were still flying by the time Hategan got things under way. Arguably the biggest game in Belfast since the win over Israel in November 1981 that sealed Northern Ireland’s passage to the World Cup had an atmosphere worthy of the occasion. But this marked a return to form for a Switzerland side that had won all nine qualifiers before slipping up at the last in Portugal.
O’Neill described the play-offs as matches that define your career. His team began brightly, pressing the Swiss into several errors with Fabian Schär collecting an early booking when he scythed down Stuart Dallas as he broke down the left wing. O’Neill claimed the defender should have been sent off for a challenge that was out of control and made with two feet off the ground. He made a valid argument.
Increasingly and ominously, however, Switzerland had 69% of the ball in the first half and it needed all the experience of Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley in central defence to keep them at bay. It was a relief that Michael McGovern had faced only one effort on target by the interval.
Switzerland’s first opportunity arrived when Rodríguez’s cross was headed down into the path of Blerim Dzemaili. The unmarked forward looked set to score from 10 yards out but Jonny Evans intervened with a vital block. Xhaka placed the rebound inches over the crossbar from the edge of the area and the Arsenal midfielder cursed his luck again moments later when another long-range shot just missed McGovern’s goal. The keeper then saved well from Haris Seferovic when he connected with Shaqiri’s superb cross.
The Stoke City playmaker was a fraction away from finding the top corner within seconds of the restart as the pattern of the play-off remained unchanged. A trademark left-foot curler from him sailed just over and there was another reprieve for the home side when Dzemaili sent a low ball across the face of their goal and Seferovic was inches from converting at full stretch.
Then came the moment that shattered Northern Ireland’s prospects of taking a clean sheet to Basel and will long linger in the country’s list of footballing grievances. Rightly so.
Shaqiri was again left unmarked as a crossfield ball dropped into his path 20 yards from goal and he took the shot confidently first time but his volley struck Corry Evans and cannoned to safety. To general astonishment, however, the referee pointed to the penalty spot. There was no intent, no deliberate handball and no prospect of getting out of the way had he so desired. Rodríguez ignored the anger around him to send McGovern the wrong way from the spot.”