Controversial Penalty Damages Northern Ireland’s World Cup Hopes

Northern Ireland face an uphill struggle to reach a first World Cup since 1986 after losing to Switzerland in controversial circumstances in the first leg of their play-off at Windsor Park.

Ricardo Rodriguez scored with a penalty just before the hour mark after Corry Evans was deemed to have handled inside the area.

Though that decision was harsh as the ball clearly struck the defender’s shoulder, the visitors were dominant throughout and might have won by a greater margin had they converted a series of other chances.

They are now strong favourites to reach a fourth consecutive World Cup when the two sides meet again in the second leg in Basel on Sunday.

The result was a disappointment for Northern Ireland, who followed an impressive qualifying campaign with a below-par performance in their first major finals play-off.

Michael O’Neill’s side had finished second in Group C behind Germany. Six wins from their 10 matches was more than they had mustered in any previous World Cup qualifying campaign.

Switzerland led Group B throughout, having won nine fixtures in a row, but lost their last game 2-0 to Portugal to miss out on automatic qualification on goal difference.

In front of a raucous crowd of more than 18,000, Northern Ireland posed little threat for most of the game in the country’s biggest match at Windsor Park for 36 years.

The Northern Irish have only reached the World Cup three times – in 1958, 1982 and 1986 – but are aiming to take part in back-to-back major tournaments for the first time, having played at Euro 2016 in France.

O’Neill’s men boasted a formidable recent home record and had kept four clean sheets in their five qualifying games at Windsor Park, with last month’s 3-1 defeat by Germany their first competitive home defeat for more than four years.

They had also won seven of their past 10 competitive matches in Belfast, but on this occasion they were never a match for three-time World Cup quarter-finalists Switzerland.

Kyle Lafferty headed over in the first half but the men in green’s best chance fell to Josh Magennis, who headed off target from a Chris Brunt free-kick late in the game.

Rodriguez appeared to handle in the area soon after but referee Ovidiu Hategan waved play on, one of a number of baffling decisions made by the Romanian official.

Away goal puts Swiss in control

Switzerland – who are 11th in the Fifa rankings, 12 places above their opponents – controlled proceedings, stamping their authority on the game from the outset and eventually securing the away goal to swing the tie firmly in their favour.

AC Milan defender Rodriguez sent goalkeeper Michael McGovern the wrong way from the spot to put his side well on their way to an 11th World Cup finals and their fourth in succession.

The visitors made light of the absence of Udinese midfielder Valon Behrami and ex-Arsenal defender Johan Djourou, with Gunners midfielder Granit Xhaka a prominent figure throughout.

He volleyed over the bar in the first half, while Haris Seferovic saw his close-range effort brilliantly saved by McGovern.

Early in the second half, Shaqiri curled an effort just off target and Seferovic was unable to connect with a cross from three yards out with the goal gaping.

But it was the penalty award that had everyone talking.

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