Switzerland 0 Northern Ireland 0 (Switzerland win 1-0 on agg)
Michael O’Neill resembled a mourner at a funeral as he walked across a mud-splattered pitch in Basel to console each and every member of his distraught team. It was a fitting image. The dream of a first World Cup appearance in 32 years has died for Northern Ireland, and all because of a disgraceful penalty awarded in Belfast three days earlier. It may prove the end of an era, not simply of another remarkable campaign.
Northern Ireland held their own against the team ranked 11th in the world and came agonisingly close to taking the playoff to extra time when Jonny Evans's injury-time header sailed goalwards. Yann Sommer, the Switzerland goalkeeper, was nowhere to be seen having missed Chris Brunt's deep cross into the area but Ricardo Rodríguez was on the line to volley clear. It was Rodríguez who scored the controversial penalty that ultimately decided the team going to Russia next summer. Another cruel twist for O'Neill and his players.
They had arrived in Basel nursing a legitimate sense of injustice but channelled it as their manager had demanded. They also found pre-match optimism in the parallels with their win over Ukraine at the European Championship. It was understandable to search for positives given Northern Ireland’s daunting predicament but, more importantly, it was borne out by a vastly improved performance from O’Neill’s team. If only the result had been the same.
As he did after the opening group defeat by Poland last summer, the Northern Ireland manager made several changes and replaced the physicality of Kyle Lafferty, plus Josh Magennis, with the energy of Conor Washington and Jamie Ward. He also recalled Aaron Hughes at right back, thereby making the 38-year-old the most capped home nations' defender of all time, surpassing Bobby Moore's record of 108 international appearances.
There was also a torrential downpour in Basel to echo the hailstorm that temporarily halted proceedings in Lyon at the Euros. The pitch at St Jakob-Park was sodden as a consequence and inspected twice before the game was given the go-ahead. Northern Ireland players conducted their warm-up around ground staff who were throwing buckets of sand on to the pitch to absorb visible patches of water. Passing was inevitably complicated, although Northern Ireland’s recovery was the most striking feature at St Jakob-Park.
With Washington working tirelessly across the front line, Oliver Norwood shining in central midfield and Gareth McAuley commanding in central defence, the visitors made a hugely encouraging start. Granit Xhaha’s pre-match assertion that Switzerland’s hugely controversial penalty would prove an irrelevance to the overall result was quickly in doubt. O’Neill’s side did not manage one shot on target in the first leg. Here they created four decent openings inside 16 minutes, stinging goalkeeper Sommer’s palms twice.
Stuart Dallas, starting despite nursing an ankle injury from the defeat in Belfast, had an excellent early chance to level the tie from a Steven Davis cross. The Leeds United winger and Ward jumped for the same ball, however, and collided as Dallas headed into the side-netting.
Sommer saved from Brunt when the left back let fly towards the top corner from 25 yards. The West Bromwich Albion defender forced the Switzerland goalkeeper into a near-post save with another drive from distance and Dallas steered a half volley just over from a Norwood corner.
Northern Ireland also had several openings for a counter-attack but not the pace or numbers to exploit them properly. Switzerland grew into the game and, once they had adjusted to the testing playing conditions, created numerous chances to extend their advantage. Thanks to Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping and wayward finishing, they were unable to do so.
McGovern saved well from Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber in the first half. He was also reprieved when Haris Seferovic headed inches wide from an inviting cross by Shaqiri, Blerim Dzemaili's shot struck McAuley and deflected over the bar and another header from the Benfica striker hit his own player, Fabian Schär, en route to goal. Seferovic and Zuber put two other clear openings wide to ensure another similarity with the Ukraine game – a goalless first half.
A Northern Ireland defence with a combined age of 136 was always vulnerable to Switzerland's runners but the experience of Hughes, McAuley and Jonny Evans came to the fore as they survived sustained pressure at the start of the second half. Rodríguez sent an angled drive just wide of the far post, Hughes blocked from Zuber and McAuley did likewise when the Hoffenheim winger latched on to Stephan Lichsteiner's free-kick into the penalty area.
O'Neill's team, as always, fought back. Washington was agonisingly close to converting Ward's right-wing cross but his header flashed just wide of Sommer's goal. The Queens Park Rangers striker then created a clear opening for George Saville, having turned away from Schär down the left, but the Millwall midfielder shot tamely at the Switzerland goalkeeper.
The Northern Ireland manager threw on Josh Magennis, pushed McAuley into the attack and tried to bombard the home penalty area in the final stages. He was prepared to risk space at the back in search of that vital goal and Seferovic should have capitalised but skied dreadfully over with only McGovern to beat. The miss triggered jeers from the home crowd towards their own striker, and an angry reaction from the Switzerland bench at them in return, but they were united in relief when Rodríguez made his vital clearance in injury time.
O’Neill hugged his opposite number Vladimir Petkovic and then made the long walk to the tunnel alone, deep in thought and perhaps wondering ‘What next?’ – Guardian service