Northern Ireland 0-1 Switzerland: Controversial penalty hands Swiss advantage
By Jack Wilkinson
Last Updated: 10/11/17 8:51am
Northern Ireland's World Cup hopes hang by a thread after a contentious 1-0 defeat by Switzerland in the first leg of their play-off at Windsor Park.
The Swiss dominated the ball from start to finish but controversially took the lead on 58 minutes when Ricardo Rodriguez converted a penalty after Corry Evans was penalised for handball.
It means Northern Ireland, who failed to register a single shot on target, have it all to do in Sunday's return leg in Basel if they are to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
Michael O'Neill turned to Kyle Lafferty to lead the Northern Ireland attack as Conor Washington dropped to the bench. Switzerland did not include Valon Behrami, but Premier League stars Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka started in Belfast.
Switzerland were perhaps unfortunate to find themselves in the play-offs having won nine of their 10 qualification games, but there was no sign of self-pity from the visitors - Fabian Schar's reckless tackle on Stuart Dallas fortunate to avoid more severe punishment.
Granit Xhaka had Switzerland's first chance, which he fired over from the edge of the area, before Michael McGovern's stunning fingertip save denied Haris Serefovic from steering Xherdan Shaqiri's cross home on 19 minutes.
Northern Ireland settled as the half wore on but failed to threaten Yann Sommer's goal, and the Swiss continued their dominance immediately after the interval as Shaqiri's curling effort clipped the top of the bar.
Seferovic came within inches of breaking the deadlock on 55 minutes but he could not stretch enough to get on the end of Blerim Dzemaili's low cross.
But the Swiss finally made a breakthrough in contentious circumstances as Rodriguez sent McGovern the wrong way from 12 yards, after Evans was harshly adjudged to have blocked Shaqiri's goal-bound volley.
Keen to restore parity before Sunday's trip to Switzerland, Northern Ireland mounted a late rally but they failed to level the contest, Josh Magennis heading the hosts' best chance well wide on 71 minutes.
Northern Ireland: McGovern (6), McLaughlin (6), McAuley (6), J Evans (6), Brunt (5), Norwood (5), C Evans (5), Davis (6), Magennis (5), Lafferty (5), Dallas (5).
Subs: Ward (6), Saville (6), Washington (NA).
Switzerland: Sommer (6), Lichtsteiner (6), Akanji (7), Rodriguez (7), Schar (6), Xhaka (6), Zuber (7), Dzemaili (6), Zakaria (8), Shaqiri (7), Seferovic (6).
Subs: Embolo (6), Mehmedi (NA), Frei (NA)
Man of the Match: Denis Zakaria
That left Switzerland to see out the victory which puts them in a strong position to reach Russia 2018, Northern Ireland will have to do it the hard way if they are to reach next summer's tournament.
- This is the first time Northern Ireland have lost back-to-back home games since February 2012 (a run of three).
- Indeed, Norn Iron have now conceded in consecutive home games for the first time since October 2015, following a run of eight clean sheets in nine games at Windsor Park.
- The Green and White Army failed to register a single shot on target for the first time since facing Poland at Euro 2016.
- All three of Ricardo Rodriguez's goals for Switzerland in this qualifying process have come away from home, making him the top Swiss away scorer in World Cup 2018 qualifying.
- Switzerland have now won 10 of their last 11 competitive games, with the exception being last month's loss to Portugal which forced them into the play-off.
Michael O'Neill: "It's staggering really that the referee can give that penalty decision in that situation. He was six yards from the incident, he has no one in his line of sight. I thought he had blown for a foul or for offside, so to give a penalty for that, when nobody appealed, it is bewildering really. In such a defining moment in the match we feel very hard done by."
Man of the Match - Denis Zakaria
On his full debut for Switzerland, Zakaria had an all-round stormer in Belfast. He impressed in every third, imposed himself brilliantly on Northern Ireland's busy midfield, and looked years beyond his age. He turns 21 later this month, and Borussia Monchengladbach will no doubt see plenty of Europe's biggest clubs snooping around for his signature if he continues this form.
All eyes will be on Basel's St Jakob-Park on Sunday as Northern Ireland look to overcome their first-leg deficit against Switzerland, live on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event from 4.30pm.