North­ern Ire­land pay harsh penalty

The Scotsman - - Sports Digest -

North­ern Ire­land ex­pe­ri­enced their own Thierry Henry mo­ment in a World Cup play­off 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 tonight, 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, pic­tured, had called in his pro­gramme notes more de­serv­ing of suc­cess than any­one else, it was a harsh blow.

This was the big­gest fix­ture staged in Belfast since North­ern

0 Ri­cardo Ro­driguez sends North­ern Ire­land keeper Michael Mcgovern the wrong way as he scores Switzer­land’s penalty win­ner. Ire­land beat Greece 3-1 in 2015 to qual­ify for the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships. 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 had been 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 left-foot strike un­der the cross­bar after Chris 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.

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 North­ern Ire­land could not muster a re­ply, with ref­eree Hate­gan ig­nor­ing their own hope­ful spot-kick ap­peals when Josh Ma­gen­nis’ pass across the box hit Ro­driguez, leav­ing them with a moun­tain to climb in Basel on Sun­day.

CROA­TIA

Mo­dric 13 pen, Kalinic 19, Perisic 33, Kra­maric 49

GREECE

Pa­pas­tathopou­los 30 Croa­tia put one foot back in the World Cup fi­nals by cruising to an em­phatic 4-1 vic­tory over Greece in the first leg of their qual­i­fy­ing play-off in Za­greb.

An early Luca Mo­dric penalty and fur­ther goals for the home side from Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and An­drej Kra­maric were enough to make Sun­day night’s sec­ond leg against the Greeks – who replied through Sokratis Pa­pas­tathopou­los – ap­pear a for­mal­ity.

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