FOOTBALL: Northern Ireland's World Cup dreams are over


Sunday, 12th November 2017, 6:56 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 10:13 am
Northern Ireland's Jamie Ward with Switzerland's Stephan Lichtsteiner and Yann Sommer

Northern Ireland have failed to qualify for the World Cup after they drew the second leg of their play-off with Switzerland 0-0, resulting in a 1-0 aggregate loss.

Michael O'Neill's players left nothing in the tank with an heroic display against the Swiss in Basel, but they just could not get a goal which could have put them right back in the mix to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in 32 years.

The Swiss held a 1-0 advantage going into their home leg of the play-off thanks to a controversial penalty award at Windsor Park on Thursday night - a decision that will sting for years.

Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas with Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez

Stuart Dallas was fit enough to start for a Northern Ireland side that featured four changes for the second leg of their World Cup play-off with Switzerland.

Dallas arrived in Basel on crutches on Friday following a wild challenge from Fabian Schar in the Swiss' 1-0 win on Thursday, but he retained his place in Michael O'Neill's team.

While Switzerland were unchanged at St Jakob-Park, O'Neill brought in Aaron Hughes, George Saville, Jamie Ward and Conor Washington for the suspended Corry Evans, Conor McLaughlin, Josh Magennis and Kyle Lafferty.

There was a concern over the pitch prior to kick-off after heavy downpours in the afternoon, with ground staff needing to clear large areas of standing water as the rain continued to fall.

Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas with Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez

Referee Felix Brych conducted two pitch inspections as the rain continued to fall but, around 45 minutes before kick-off, it was confirmed the game would go ahead on time as planned.

After failing to register a single shot on target in Belfast on Thursday, Northern Ireland were, at the very least, seeking an improved performance.

Inside the first five minutes they threatened on three occasions - the first when Dallas and Ward got in each other's way at the back post from Steven Davis' cross.

Home goalkeeper Yann Sommer, a virtual spectator at Windsor Park, then had to push Chris Brunt's effort from range over before Dallas fired over the top from the resulting corner.

This was nothing like the cagey and cautious affair three days earlier and the Swiss perhaps should have been ahead when Xherdan Shaqiri's cross was glanced wide by Haris Seferovic's head.

After Brunt had scythed down Stephan Lichtsteiner to earn a seventh-minute caution, Blerim Dzemaili fired across the six-yard box and Gareth McAuley flicked out a leg and saw the ball diverted over.

Yet Northern Ireland were unrecognisable from the first leg, and their energetic, pressing style was nearly rewarded when Brunt drove at Sommer once more.

Switzerland were having nowhere near the same amount of possession, on a pitch that was already cutting up, but they continued to carve out chances as Seferovic rifled into the side-netting.

Shaqiri's penchant for coming in off the right flank on to his left foot was well known and he had Brunt back-tracking when he smashed a near-post effort that Michael McGovern was equal to.

McGovern was struggling with his kicks in such conditions but used his legs to good effect to turn away a shot from Steven Zuber, who was troubling no one when he sliced another attempt wide with his other foot.

The visitors looked to be tiring already out on the bog as the rain returned to hinder things further.

Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka were both pulled back for offside decisions before Northern Ireland had a terrific opportunity on the stroke of half-time when Ward was fouled and won a free-kick 25 yards from goal.

It favoured Brunt's left foot, but the West Brom man blazed his attempt way off target.

INTRO: Northern Ireland were 45 minutes away from missing out on the World Cup having failed to score in the first half of the second leg against Switzerland.

Michael O'Neill's team, featuring four changes from the side beaten 1-0 by the Swiss in Belfast on Thursday, were vastly improved and Chris Brunt twice brought saves out of Yann Sommer in their play-off encounter.

Switzerland had good opportunities too on a quagmire of a pitch, with Michael McGovern saving well from Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber.

Switzerland's marauding full-backs, Ricardo Rodriguez and Lichtsteiner, had largely been subdued but the latter broke from defence into the Northern Irish box at the start of second half to set up a Zuber chance that Hughes blocked.

It was Rodriguez's turn next to venture forward and take aim with a chance that McGovern may have struggled to keep out had it been on target.

Then, nine minutes after the break, Northern Ireland nearly went ahead and levelled the tie.

Saville, increasingly having more influence on the game, spread a glorious pass out to Ward and his cross was nodded wide by Washington in a terrific counter-attacking move.

Swiss boss Vladimir Petkovic sensed the need to turn the tide and introduced Admir Mehmedi for Dzemaili in the 61st minute, with Sommer called upon again seconds later from a tame Saville shot after Washington's excellent turn.

Northern Ireland were posing more problems now, particularly down the left with Dallas, yet a corner he won off Fabian Schar came to nothing as O'Neill pondered his first change.

With 16 minutes remaining, O'Neill made a double change, introducing Josh Magennis and debutant Jordan Jones for Ward and Oliver Norwood.

Northern Ireland switched to a 4-4-2 and the intent was obvious immediately as Magennis clattered into Swiss centre-backs in a more direct approach.

Switzerland now seemed content to hold on to their first-leg lead, although the tie would surely have been put to bed if McAuley did not rush around to block Zuber's shot.

Petkovic replaced Shaqiri with 10 minutes to go and O'Neill responded by taking off Washington for Paddy McNair and throwing McAuley up front.

Jones had a shot blocked and Northern Ireland retained hope when Seferovic and then his replacement Breel Embolo missed decent openings.

There was to be one final chance when Sommer missed Brunt's deep cross and Evans headed towards goal but it was Rodriguez, the man who converted the penalty in Belfast, who was on the line to clear and deny Northern Ireland extra time.