Switzerland 0-0 Northern Ireland (1-0 aeg): the Green and White Army's World Cup hopes melt in Basel
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
It takes one decision, just one bad decision, to determine the outcome of an incredibly close two legs between Northern Ireland and Switzerland. There was very little to separate the sides in the World Cup playoff, bar a decision from the referee that clinched qualification for the Swiss - and saw the Green and White Army's hopes melt away like chocolate.
When the two sides met again at Stade de Suisse on Sunday, the hosts had a chance - or even half a dozen - to wrap up the game, beyond the contentious goal from the first leg. Xherdan Shaqiri was the architect for many of their efforts, testing goalkeeper Michael McGovern on a number of occasions.
The Norwich City keeper was called upon to deny Steven Zuber just before the half hour marker, when the midfielder latched on to a clever pass from Haris Seferović and hit it hard and low. McGovern managed to turn it behind with an outstretched leg.
Chris Brunt was looking lively at the other end - but not necessarily dangerous. He started off brightly, firing a 25-yard shot and forcing Yann Sommer to push it over. It took 90 minutes in the previous leg, and three minutes on the clock in the return fixture, for Northern Ireland to record their first shot on target. The West Brom player also fired over with a free-kick on the edge of the box, just before half-time. His efforts were audacious, but not effective.
The football showed by Michael O'Neill's side was what we would expect from the Green and White Army: solid defensively, but it lacked the edge in attack - failing to be expansive and troubling for the Swiss. It may work when the teams are on an equal footing, but with the goal advantage of the Swiss, the goal-shy side needed to change their game plan - and attacking football was called for.
Conor Washington came close when he was able to evade his marker and send a looping header that fell just wide. Granit Xhaka had carelessly gave away possession, and the visitors launched a counter attack. The ball feel to Jamie Ward on the right, who sent a lovely ball to the striker - the only Northern Irish player in the box - but his header fell at the wrong side of the far post.
The striker was the provider for the Green and White Army's next chance. He used skill and trickery beautifully when he turned his marker on the left, and surged down the side. The 25-year-old pulled it back for George Saville who scuffs a weak shot straight at the goalkeeper.
The visitors were starting to find their rhythm in the second half, controlling portions of the game in the muddy terrain at Stade de Suisse. As the rain continued to fall from the sky, and the pitch turning from the green of the Irish to the brown of Swiss chocolate, Northern Ireland's qualification hopes began to discolour.
With only minutes left on the clock in additional time, Jonny Evans' header was cleared off the line by Ricardo Rodríguez. After a corner was cleared, Brunt sent the ball back into the box for the defender to nod in - but his chance, and Northern Ireland's hopes, was denied. Despite the hard graft and knocking on the host's door, no one would answer.
A blow of the referee's whistle to conclude the game confirmed Switzerland's place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia - and similarly, it was a referee's whistle that had denied Northern Ireland in the previous leg.