Northern Ireland and Switzerland tie nil-nil. The Swiss advance to the World Cup in Russia.
The Guardians Andy Hunter wrote:” Michael O’Neill resembled a mourner at a funeral as he walked across a mud-splattered pitch in Switzerland wearing a long black coat to console his distraught players. How apt. The dream of a first World Cup appearance in 32 years has died for Northern Ireland and all because of a disgraceful penalty decision in Belfast three days earlier. It may prove the end of an era, not simply of another remarkable campaign.
Northern Ireland held their own against the team ranked 11th in the world and were agonisingly close to taking the play-off to extra time when Jonny Evans’s injury-time header sailed goalwards. Yann Sommer, the Switzerland goalkeeper, was awol having missed Chris Brunt’s deep cross but Ricardo Rodríguez came to his country’s rescue with a clearance on the line. It would have to be Rodríguez, who scored the controversial penalty that ultimately decided the team heading to Russia next summer. Another cruel twist for O’Neill and his players.
“The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision that means we are missing out on the chance to go to a World Cup,” the Northern Ireland manager said. “That is the cruelty. We should still be out there playing extra time.”
Northern Ireland’s sense of injustice will harden given the consequence of Ovidiu Hategan’s incompetence but O’Neill was rightly proud of how it was channelled in Basel. Several parallels with last summer’s European Championship defeat of Ukraine gave cause for optimism before kick-off and, if that appeared wishful thinking in the face of a daunting predicament, it was substantiated by a vastly improved second-leg performance. If only the result had been the same.
As he did after the opening group defeat by Poland last summer, O’Neill replaced the physicality of Kyle Lafferty, plus Josh Magennis, with the energy of Conor Washington and Jamie Ward, to telling effect. He also recalled Aaron Hughes at right‑back, thereby making the 38-year-old the most capped home nations defender of all time, surpassing Bobby Moore’s record of 108 international appearances.
There was also a torrential downpour in Basel to echo the hailstorm that temporarily halted proceedings in Lyon. The pitch at St Jakob-Park was sodden and inspected twice before the game was given the go-ahead. Northern Ireland players conducted their warm-up around ground staff who were throwing buckets of sand on to the pitch to absorb visible patches of water. Passing was inevitably complicated, although Northern Ireland’s recovery was the most striking feature here.
With Washington working tirelessly across the front line, Oliver Norwood shining in central midfield and Gareth McAuley commanding in central defence, the visitors rediscovered the form that secured a runners-up spot in qualifying. Granit Xhaha’s pre-match assertion that Switzerland’s fortunate penalty would prove an irrelevance to the overall result was quickly in doubt. O’Neill’s side did not manage one shot on target in the first leg. Here they created four decent openings inside 16 minutes, stinging the goalkeeper Sommer’s palms twice.
Stuart Dallas, starting despite leaving Windsor Park on crutches on Thursday as a consequence of an ankle injury, had a good early chance to level the tie but headed into the side-netting from a Steven Davis cross, colliding with Ward as he leapt. Sommer saved twice from Brunt when the left-back let fly from distance and Dallas steered a half volley just over from a Norwood corner.
Switzerland grew into the game and, once they had adjusted to the testing playing conditions, created numerous chances to extend their advantage. Thanks to Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping and wayward finishing, they failed and were ultimately indebted to a penalty that should never have been given for their fourth consecutive appearance at a World Cup finals.
A Northern Ireland defence with a combined age of 136 was always vulnerable to Switzerland’s runners but the experience of Hughes, McAuley and Jonny Evans came to the fore as they survived sustained pressure at the start of the second half. Rodríguez sent an angled drive just wide of the far post, Hughes blocked from Steven Zuber and McAuley did likewise when the Hoffenheim winger latched on to Stephan Lichtsteiner’s free‑kick into the penalty area.
O’Neill’s team, as always, fought back. Washington’s header, from Ward’s right-wing cross, flashed just wide of Sommer’s goal. The QPR striker then created a clear opening for the impressive George Saville, having turned away from Fabian Schär down the left, but the Millwall midfielder shot tamely at the Switzerland keeper.
The Northern Ireland manager threw on Magennis, pushed McAuley into the attack and tried to bombard the home penalty area in the final stages. He was prepared to risk space at the back in search of that vital goal and Haris Seferovic should have capitalised but skied dreadfully over with only McGovern to beat. The miss triggered jeers from the home crowd towards their own striker, and an angry reaction from the Switzerland bench at them in return but they were united in relief when Rodríguez made his vital clearance in injury time.
O’Neill sought his opposite number, Vladimir Petkovic, after the final whistle, embraced him and then made the long walk to the tunnel alone, his World Cup dream over. Cruelly. What next? “