IT’S SPOTTEN LUCK

Ref­eree’s aw­ful penalty de­ci­sion gives North­ern Ire­land a huge moun­tain to climb in Switzer­land

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - SPORT - BY DAR­REN FULLERTON

NORTH­ERN Ire­land have a moun­tain to climb in Switzer­land fol­low­ing last night’s gut wrench­ing de­feat to a ref­er­ee­ing clanger in Belfast.

Mi­lan de­fender Ri­cardo Ro­driguez scored the win­ner – and cu­cial away goal ahead of Sun­day’s re­turn leg in Basel – from the penalty spot 12 min­utes into the se­cond half.

But it was hap­less ref­eree Ovidiu Hate­gan who as­sumed the role of vil­lain of the piece after ad­judg­ing Xher­dan Shaqiri’s shot to have struck Corry Evans’ hand.

Tele­vi­sion re­plays clearly showed the ball can­noned off the mid­fielder’s up­per arm and shoul­der.

Other than am­pu­tat­ing a limb – ill ad­vised mid­way through the first leg of a tense World Cup play-off – there’s no way Evans could have got out of the way. Harsh doesn’t be­gin to de­scribe it and now Michael O’neill faces the oner­ous task of lift­ing his play­ers for Sun­day’s re­turn leg at the St Jakob’s Park sta­dium.

Ban­ners read­ing ‘Dream Big­ger’ were un­furled on the pitch prior to kick-off as the Green and White Army pre­pared for one of their big­gest ever home games.

Ninety min­utes be­fore kick-off, O’neill was spot­ted walking alone to­wards the cen­tre cir­cle of an empty Wind­sor Park, tak­ing in the pre-match still­ness of the South Belfast venue.

His play­ers fol­lowed soon after, stand­ing and chat­ting on the pitch, no doubt vi­su­al­is­ing their hopes and dreams of tak­ing the prov­ince to its first World Cup in a gen­er­a­tion.

A penny for O’neill’s thoughts now after last night’s heart­break­ing re­sult.

Early pe­ri­ods of Swiss pos­ses­sion were met by shrill whis­tles from the home sup­port and Ar­se­nal mid­fielder Granit Xhaka was at the heart of the early pres­sure. He curled over on 10 min­utes when Dze­malli’s ini­tial ef­fort from a Ro­driguez cross was blocked in­side the area and went close after be­ing teed up by Sleven Zu­ber soon after.

The home sup­port was on ten­ter­hooks again on 18 min­utes when dan­ger­ous Stoke City winger Shaqiri looped a wicked cross to­wards the lurk­ing Haris Se­fer­ovic.

The Ben­fica striker man­aged to di­rect a close range vol­ley on the stretch to­wards the far cor­ner of the goal but goal­keeper Michael Mcgovern dived low to his left to parry away.

The only ef­fort of note for O’neill’s men in the first half was a spec­u­la­tive Kyle Laf­ferty vol­ley from dis­tance which was took a de­flec­tion, the ball fi­nally nestling in the Rail­way End.

The Swiss were inches away from an opener a minute into the se­cond pe­riod when Brunt mis­judged the flight of Ro­driguez’s cross­field pass.

Shaqiri con­trolled in­side the area

and cut in­side onto his left foot, but his ar­rowed ef­fort from 18 yards out crept nar­rowly beyond the far post.

The sprawl­ing Se­fer­ovic then failed to get on the end of Dze­malli’s low cross a cou­ple of yards out as the Swiss pressed for a break­through.

It came in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances on 57 min­utes when ref­eree Hato­gan awarded an ex­tremely harsh penalty after Shaqiri’s shot struck the cov­er­ing Evans in­side the area. The ball ap­peared to ric­o­chet off Evans’ up­per arm and shoul­der but the Ro­ma­nian of­fi­cial pointed to the spot and Ro­driguez cooly sent

Mcgovern the wrong way. To twist the knife even deeper, Evans picked up a yel­low card, rul­ing him out of Sun­day’s se­cond show­down in Switzer­land.

A deep sense of in­jus­tice spurred on North­ern Ire­land in the fi­nal quar­ter of the game and Josh Ma­gen­nis watched a header from a Brunt free kick bounce wide.

Brunt also went close with a driven dead ball on 73 min­utes, be­fore Ma­gen­nis had a penalty ap­peal waved away late on after his at­tempted cross struck Ro­driguez.

It would end 1-0 to the Swiss and North­ern Ire­land – bid­ding to reach a first World Cup since Billy Bing­ham’s famed sides of 1982 and 1986 – now face an Alp-sized task in

Basel.

ES­CAPE Ref­eree Ovidiu Hate­gan shows only a yel­low card to Fabian Schar for ridicu­lous lunge on Stu­art Dal­las

SWITZ A KNOCK­OUT Ri­cardo Ro­driguez slams his penalty past Michael Mcgovern last night

FRUS­TRATED Michael O’neill ap­peals for a de­ci­sion last night

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