It was billed as one of the biggest games in Northern Ireland’s history as they welcomed Switzerland to town. Michael O’Neill’s side had snatched a place in the playoffs by beating Wales 1-0 in Cardiff, and the Irish were hoping for more of the same against a much-fancied Swiss side.
While the hosts started brightly, Switzerland soon found their rhythm, passing the ball around nicely, keeping possession for long periods and pressing their hosts when they lost it. This made things very difficult for the Irish who spent much of the first-half pinned in their own third.
The second-half began and the game continued in the same way, and Switzerland were beginning to threaten even more. Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri then struck the ball onto the shoulder of Corry Evans from no more than a yard away, and the referee gave a penalty, which Ricardo Rodriguez put into the bottom corner.
While Ireland battled hard to try to work their way back into the game, they were met by a wall of Swiss defenders that would not be beaten, while Chris Brunt spurned a number of free-kicks in promising positions as the visitors saw out the win.
It is of course only half-time in the tie, but Northern Ireland face the unenviable task of beating Switzerland on their own turf. O’Neill has a huge job to get his players ready for the must-win game, with Ireland’s World Cup dream hanging in the balance.
From Ireland’s loss, what five things did we learn?
The Swiss dominate the early stages
Much of the pre-match talk surrounded how Northern Ireland would play in the game as an outwardly defensive style can often see a team dominated and concede more than if they had played positively. Against Germany, they were given a lesson by the world champions after Martin O’Neill tried to utilise a formation with five at the back. At half-time, the manager reverted to their tried and tested 4-3-3 and they were far better for it.
O’Neill decided to use that same system against Switzerland as the Irish looked to play positively from the outset by using their wingers and getting at the opposition. However, after a nervy start, the visitors began to settle into the game and dominated the possession. This meant that Ireland were constantly chasing the ball, and when they were able to gain possession back, the Irish were under immediate pressure, with the pressing game of their opponents outstanding.
The first-half followed a very similar pattern as Switzerland kept the ball and Ireland chased it. When the hosts got it back they were hounded until they lost it. Switzerland displayed exactly why they took Portugal all the way in their own group, with a display of consummate professionalism.
A harsh penalty opens the scoring
In a game in which Northern Ireland looked to stay solid at the back, it was always going to take either something spectacular, or controversial to open the scoring. Unfortunately for Ireland, the Swiss got the latter.
The ball broke kindly for the visitors as a cross was sent towards Xherdan Shaqiri. The Stoke-winger took a touch and sent a fierce shot towards goal which was blocked by Corry Evans, which was met by a roar of approval from the home fans as the danger was averted, or so they thought. The referee pointed to the spot despite the protests of the home players, giving the Swiss a huge chance to open the scoring.
Ricardo Rodriguez stepped up and sent the goalkeeper the wrong way as he helped his side to take the lead soon after half-time. While there was no doubt about the quality of the strike for the penalty, the debate will rage on into the night as the act that gave away the spot-kick was contentious, to say the least. Evans jumped and turned his back on the ball, which struck his shoulder, with the shot coming from no more than a yard away. Places at major competitions are won and lost on decisions like this, was this the one that consigned Northern Ireland to a summer on the sofa?
Northern Ireland not at the races
There was so much hype surrounding the match as it was hailed as one of the biggest games for Northern Ireland in their history. A win would set up a similarly important game in Switzerland in a few days, while a defeat would mean that Ireland would have to go away and win, something that no team managed in qualifying as Switzerland only lost to Portugal in Portugal.
It was clear then, that Ireland needed a positive result, with a draw not the worst thing that could happen to them. However, as well as Switzerland played, Ireland just couldn’t turn it on. Six wins in qualifying count for little in a playoff, and so it proved on Thursday evening.
While the fans played their part in creating the classic atmosphere that people have come to expect from the Irish, their players saw passes miss their mark, heavy touches and bad decisions as the occasion seemed to get to them.
O’Neill’s men have another chance to realise their World Cup dream, but a trip to Switzerland has held little joy for teams in recent months.
An unhappy 100 for Steven Davis
Steven Davis was looking for a massive win on Thursday evening as he brought up his 100th cap in the playoff against Switzerland. However, things didn’t really work out as he would have envisaged, with the Irish struggling to really have an impact upon the game.
Davis himself was quiet on the night as his duties were pretty much entirely on the defensive side, with the visitors dominating.
While the 4-3-3 formation gives Ireland more attacking intent, it does not always provide enough of a midfield base to control the centre of the pitch, which is something that the Swiss used to hurt the Irish. Davis and co were overrun in the middle as the class of their opponents told.
The midfield stronghold the visitors were able to build allowed for a defensive solidity that was supplemented by their high press, while it also meant that whenever they looked to go forward, there was always an option to use.
Ireland, on the other hand, found that they were forcing passes with the amount of pressure that they came under. The 4-3-3 formation is one that has worked well for Ireland in the past, but Davis needed more help in the middle, and O’Neill has a massive job on his hands to mastermind his way out of the situation they find themselves in.
Northern Ireland must bounce back quickly
The players, the management, the fans and the country, on the whole, will be hugely disappointed after they fell to a 1-0 defeat, and not because of how they played. The decision to give a penalty was a massively contentious one, with even the Swiss fans seeming surprised when the spot-kick was given.
However, it is only half-time in this playoff. Michael O’Neill will speak at length to his players about the game, where they went wrong, what they did well, and what they must do in Switzerland. There will also be a chat about that penalty decision, and while many will dispute the call, O’Neill will know that they have to move on from it.
Teams in the past have looked to continue the argument over a decision, despite that moment being consigned to history. The Irish will feel aggrieved, and O’Neill no longer needs any extra motivation for his players ahead of their must-win game with Switzerland.
Northern Ireland: McGovern 6 – McLaughlin 6, McAuley 6, Evans 6, Brunt 5 – C Evans 5 (Saville 6), Norwood 5, Davis 6 – Magennis 5, Lafferty 5 (Washington 5), Dallas 5.5 (Ward 6).
Unused subs: Mannus, Carroll, Hodson, McNair, Hughes, McArdle, Ferguson, Jones, Lund.
Switzerland: Sommer 6 – Lichtsteiner 6, Schar 5, Akanji 7, Rodriquez 7- Xhaka 6, Zakaria 6 – Shaqiri 7, Dzemaili 6 (Frei 5) , Zuber (Mehmedi 6) – Seferovic 6 (Embolo 6).
Unused subs: Hitz, Burki, Lacroix, Elvedi, Lang, Freuler, G Fernandes, E Fernandes, Gavranovic.
Referee: Ovidiu Hategan
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