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