Northern Ireland have it all to do if they are to reach the World Cup after losing the first leg play-off to Switzerland in controversial fashion.
Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty gave the Swiss the advantage ahead of the return fixture in Basel on Sunday, with the Northern Irish livid that a spot-kick was awarded for a handball against Corry Evans.
Replays were inconclusive over whether it hit Evans’ back or his arm, which was tucked in anyway, so Michael O’Neill’s men were left to rue their own Thierry Henry moment.
Here we look at five things we learned from the Swiss’ 1-0 success.
VAR has to be introduced
Spare a thought for O’Neill and his players if England or Germany benefit from video assistance when the system is trialled in an official UK game for the first time on Friday night. It will ultimately be trivial in that Wembley friendly, but it would have been vital in Belfast. Referees in games of that magnitude should be supported by technology. They are not and the Northern Irish fans have been left feeling like the Republic’s supporters did when Henry’s handball in the build up to France’s decisive goal was not spotted in their play-off eight years earlier.
Injustice can be a motivating factor
The manner of the defeat may be galling, but even the most ardent member of the Green and White Army could not quibble about the Swiss’ dominance. They would have emerged victorious had Haris Seferovic reached Blerim Dzemaili’s cross or Xherdan Shaqiri’s attempt dipped under the bar and Northern Ireland would still be heading to Basel looking unlikely to advance. At least now they have anger. They responded well to it in Belfast and have to use it to fuel them in the second leg.
The Swiss will be a force anyway
Switzerland were seen as a more favourable opponent when the draw was made but 20 minutes in at Windsor Park and a lot of that Northern Irish confidence had evaporated. Not only were they resolute, they controlled the midfield through Granit Xhaka and the excellent Denis Zakaria, while full-backs Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner caused constant headaches down either flank. No European team has ever progressed through the play-offs after losing the home leg first. Northern Ireland have a mountain to climb.
If you are going to make a rash challenge, do it early
Only Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan will know if he did not dismiss Fabian Schar for his out-of-control hack at Stuart Dallas because it occurred in the fifth minute. The Switzerland centre-back was wild in lunging in but only received a yellow card. Both O’Neill and former referee Keith Hackett claimed Schar should have seen red yet Shaqiri argued that Hategan could not have dismissed his colleague, in part because the incident happened so early on. That thought is held across football, yet it is one that makes little sense.
And the yellow card rule in qualification is ridiculous…
To complete Evans’ misery, he was also booked by the referee for conceding the penalty. It was his second caution of the qualification campaign, 363 days after his first against Azerbaijan, and triggered a ban because yellow cards are carried over into the play-offs. Evans will now miss the return leg in Basel and that seems extra harsh, particularly given how contentious the circumstances were.