Xherdan Shaqiri previewed the match by saying how much he was looking forward to a party in Basel on Sunday night, and unless Northern Ireland turn up with an eviction notice, Shaqiri will have his Swiss wish granted.
Switzerland not only have home advantage, they have a goal advantage. It is courtesy of a controversial penalty awarded 13 minutes into the second half by Romanian referee, Ovidiu Hategem.
Shaqiri was centrally involved, belting a 20-yard volley straight at Corry Evans. Evans was only two yards away and tried to turn his body to avoid the very outcome the referee reached. There were Irish protests but Ricardo Rodriguez converted the kick coolly.
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Few inside Windsor Park could dispute that Switzerland deserved to win, but they did not deserve to win this way. The referee became the pivotal figure.
It leaves Michael O’Neill’s team with the proverbial Alp to climb, but there was some hope to be drawn from O’Neill’s second half substitutions. Jamie Ward’s introduction was a spark and Conor Washington and George Saville both added to the Irish performance.
But this was one hard night for O’Neill’s admirable players. The Swiss were a cut above the teams Northern Ireland have beaten here before on make-or-break occasions, such as Greece. Jonny Evans and co stayed on the pitch at the end to rouse the crowd as best they could. It is, after all, only half-time.
There had been such optimism. It was one of those Belfast nights with electricity in the air, and flares and smoke and songs. “Hello, hello, we’re off to Moscow, where we’ll sing and we’ll dance, like we did it in France,” they were chanting as they trooped down Tate’s Avenue towards Windsor Park.
Inside it was sea of green and silver foil, which worked in its own way. The atmosphere was stoked and the Irish began at a pelt. In the fifth minute Fabian Schar felled Stuart Dallas on a charge down the home left and was booked. The crowd were up.
Free-kicks are an important piece of the Irish repertoire, but the menace did not translate into action, the Swiss cleared and began to assert themselves in midfield.
Revolving around Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Dennis Zakaria, a strong and skilful 20 year-old playing for Borussia Monchengladbach, Switzerland were anything but overawed by the occasion. In fact, they had risen to it.
Steven Davis, winning his 100th cap, is referred to as under-rated seven days a week, but that term applied to the Swiss. Ranked 11th in the world and with a squad featuring plenty of Bundesliga, Serie A and Champions League experience, Switzerland were revealing their calibre.
What they did not do in the first half was score, which must have been of some frustration, because they were dominant. Rodriguez (AC Milan) and Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim) were combining on the Swiss left to give the Irish right – Conor McLaughlin (Millwall) and Josh Magennis (Charlton) – much concern.
Four times in the opening 20 minutes Switzerland were through. Twice Xhaka skied shots from the ‘D’ over the bar, once Gareth McAuely made a last-ditch clearance and lastly Michael McGovern saved from a Haris Seferovic effort that looked goalbound. Xherdan Shaqiri had created that chance with a superb cross.
In return Northern Ireland offered the odd joust but Davis was unable to get on the ball and dictate the rhythm. When he does, the team are different, potent, but the interval came without an Irish shot on target.
O’Neill had work to do in the dressing room, but he chose to make no changes. Nor unsurprisingly, did the visitors and just 25 seconds into the second half, Shaqiri was inches away from giving the Swiss the lead they deserved. After Chris Brunt had missed a cross, Shaqiri bent a a beautiful effort just over.
Windsor Park let out a collective gasp when it saw the replay. It let out another eight minutes later when Seferovic was a stud’s length away from converting a low centre from Blerim Dzemaili.
And it cried thrice when referee Hategan judged Corry Evans to have handled Shaqiri’s volley. The Stoke City playmaker will be planning that party.
Northern Ireland (4-1-4-1): McGovern; McLaughlin, J. McAuley, Evans, Brunt; Norwood; Magennis, Davis, C. Evans (Saville 65), Dallas (Ward 52); Lafferty (Washington 78).
Switzerland (4-3-3): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schar, Akanji, Rodriguez; Zakaria, Xhaka, Dzemaili (Frei 83); Shaqiri, Seferovic, Zuber (Mehmedi 87)
Referee: Ovidiu Hategan (Romania)