NORTHERN IRELAND 0 SWITZERLAND 1
Northern Ireland experienced their own Thierry Henry moment in a World Cup play-off as Switzerland gained the upper hand in Belfast with a controversially-awarded penalty.
Eight years after Henry handled in the build-up to the goal which sent France through against the Republic of Ireland, referee Ovidiu Hategan awarded a penalty in Belfast when he ruled Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley struck Corry Evans’ arm, which was tucked into his side, as he turned his body from close range.
Ricardo Rodriguez converted the spot-kick in the 58th minute to give the visitors an away goal and a 1-0 lead ahead of Sunday’s return leg in Basel, where Michael O’Neill’s men have it all to do.
They will be driven on there by a sense of injustice because of a decision that may well have been overturned had a video referee, which is being trialled in England’s friendly with Germany on Friday, been in place.
For a team aiming to be the first in 32 years to represent Northern Ireland at a World Cup, and one O’Neill had called more deserving of success than anyone else in his programme notes, it was a harsh blow.
This was the biggest fixture staged in Belfast since Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 in 2015 to qualify for the European Championship.
The hosts had reached this stage in large part thanks to two big home victories over Norway and the Czech Republic, when O’Neill’s men scored two early goals on both occasions.
That was the template to follow but the Swiss were not shocked by their surroundings like those two visiting nations and soon took control, with Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka rifling two good attempts from the edge of the box off target.
Northern Ireland looked too deep, and were getting little help from the recalled Kyle Lafferty in terms of an outlet.
Switzerland got behind their defence in the 18th minute, Haris Seferovic stretching to reach Shaqiri’s terrific pass over the top and poke in a volley that Michael McGovern had to claw away.
While it continued to be cagey and cautious, the home side did at least settle and were seeing more of the ball.
However, they failed to register a single effort on target in the opening 45 minutes, which might have concluded with a Swiss goal had Stephan Lichtsteiner kept his feet from Blerim Dzemaili’s flick-on.
Within 30 seconds of the restart, Shaqiri almost curled a patented left-foot strike under the crossbar after Brunt had failed to deal with Rodriguez’s deep cross.
Seferovic then somehow failed to prod home Dzemaili’s drive across the six-yard box but it was not long before the Swiss finally found a way through, even if it was shrouded in controversy.
Shaqiri’s viciously-hit volley cannoned into Corry Evans’ tucked-in arm as he swivelled in the box and the Blackburn midfielder, along with the majority of those inside Windsor Park, was in disbelief when a penalty was given.
Rodriguez sent McGovern the wrong way with the spot-kick and the Swiss players leapt around in jubilation noting how important the away goal was.
Northern Ireland could not muster a reply, and referee Hategan ignored their own hopeful spot-kick appeals when Magennis’ pass back across the box hit Rodriguez, leaving them with a mountain to climb in Basel on Sunday.