World Cup Playoff Report: Northern Ireland 0 - 1 Switzerland

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Dave Donnelly reports from Windsor Park in Belfast

 

Nothern Ireland's hopes of reaching a first World Cup finals in more than 30 years took a potentially fatal knock as they were beaten 1-0 by Switzerland at Windsor Park on Thursday.

 

If the air around the winding streets outside the stadium stank before the game of smoke bombs and Buckfast, after it the whiff of injustice permeated following a much-disputed penalty award.

 

Few Swiss players protested when Corry Evans, a terrier throughout his 65 minutes on the field, charged down Xherdan Shaqiri's speculative volley, least of all the Stoke City playmaker.

 

So there was widespread puzzlement when Romanian referee Ovidiu Hatigan pointed to the spot and Evans' protestations that the ball had hit his shoulder were waved away by the officials.

 

Ricardo Rodriguez took responsibility from 12 yards and sent goalkeeper Michael McGovern the wrong way to earn the Swiss a precious away win to take to Basel on Sunday.

 

Until then, there had been the odd nervy moment for Michael O'Neill's side but little indication that a breakthrough was likely as they stifled the Swiss with discipline and perseverance.

 

Fans barely had time to take their seats before the Swiss, as O'Neill had predicted in the build-up, took control of possession and deep-lying playmaker Granit Xhaka began to find his range.

 

The first half-chance of the game went the North's way, however, as Ryan Lafferty turned and found a pocket of space in front of the defence.

 

He played a ball wide on the right to Josh Magennis, whose low cross for the inrushing Stuart Dallas was inches away from coming off but for a vital clearance by Fabian Schar. 

 

Northern Ireland's best chance of nicking a goal was always likely to be from broken play, and it was from a counter-attack that visiting captain Fabian Schar became the first name cautioned.

 

The Deportivo player chopped down Magennis as he broke down the left, and was fortunate the striker was too far from goal for it to be considered a clear goalscoring opportunity.

 

Switzerland weren't long re-balancing the play back in their favour, and Haris Seferovic should have done better when Steven Zubar headed down to him six yards out, but he missed his kick.

 

From the recycled ball, Xhaka sidefooted and effort over the top, and two minutes later he was presented with an identical chance on the edge of the box, with the same result.

 

The home side roared back and, from a diagonal set-piece into the box, Gareth McAuley nodded the ball back into a sea of bodies and Denis Zakaria was ideally-placed to clear the ball.

 

That didn't signal the end of the danger for the Swiss as Lafferty's volley from the edge of the box was deflected behind, and from the resulting corner McAuley headed over the bar.

 

Xherdan Shaqiri began to have more of an influence on proceedings as the half developed, and it was his pinpoint cross that called McGovern into action for the first time.

 

For once the Northern Ireland backline was stretched and Seferovic got in behind McAuley to direct a shot across McGovern, and the Norwich City man pulled off an impressive full-stretch save.

 

The home side were typically disciplined and well-drilled, but the Swiss were adept at finding space with Xhaka, Blerim Dzemalia and Seferovic linking up with slick one-touch passing moves.

 

Gradually, they forced their way back into the game, with long, direct balls towards Lafferty proving a reliable release valve as half wore on, while Xhaka drifted out of the game.

 

They were undone just once more in the first half, seconds before the whistle, as Dzemali knocked down and Stepan Lichtsteiner's run into the box wasn't tracked, but the skipper slipped at the vital moment.

 

Switzerland came desperately close to opening the scoring less than 30 seconds into the second half as Ricardo Rodriguez picked out Shaqiri with a crossfield pass.

 

The Stoke City playmaker cut inside on his left foot and curled a beautiful shot towards the top corner that had McGovern beaten all ends up, but it flew millimetres over the crossbar.

 

Seferovic came within inches of turning a Dzemali cross into an empty net but largely the Swiss were restricted to long-range efforts – Shaqiri and Xhaka blazed over in quick succession.

 

The game swung 11 minutes into the second period, much to the bewilderment of those in attendance, as Evans' brave block was deemed illegal and Rodriguez took full advantage.

 

Northern Ireland did have chances of their own to force an equaliser. Magennis nodded a free header wide of the post and Brunt sent a sweetly-struck free kick inches over.

 

QPR striker Conor Washington gave fresh impetus when he was introduced for Lafferty late on, but with tiring legs around him he couldn't manfacture the opening Northern Ireland required.

 

Northern Ireland: Michael McGovern; Conor McLaughlin, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt; Corry Evans (George Saville 65), Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood; Stuart Dallas (Jamie Ward 52), Josh Magennis, Kyle Lafferty (Conor Washington 78).

Subs not used: Alan Mannus (gk), Shane Ferguson, Lee Hodson, Jordan Jones, Matthew Lund, Paddy McNair, Aaron Hughes, Rory McArdle.

Booked: Corry Evans (57).

 

Switzerland: Yann Sommer; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Manuel Akanji, Fabian Schar, Ricardo Rodriguez; Denis Zakaria, Granit Xhaka, Blerim Dzemali (Fabian Frei 83); Steven Zubar (Admir Mehmedi 87), Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic (Breel Embolo 77).

Subs not used: Roman Burki (gk), Marwin Hitz (gk), Leo Lacroix, Nico Elvedi, Michael Lang, Remo Freuler, Edimilson Fernandes, Gelson Fernandes, Mario Gavranovic.

Booked: Fabian Schar (5).

 

Referee: Ovidiu Hatigan (Romania).

Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Blerim Dzemali (Swizterland).