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Wednesday 21 February 2018

5 things from Northern Ireland's World Cup play-off heartache

Stuart Dallas, right, sits dejected and watches Switzerland's celebrations
Stuart Dallas, right, sits dejected and watches Switzerland's celebrations

The 2018 World Cup will not feature Northern Ireland after they failed to overturn a first-leg deficit in their play-off against Switzerland.

A goalless draw in Basel on Sunday evening meant Ricardo Rodriguez's penalty three days earlier at Windsor Park, awarded for a dubious handball against Corry Evans, was enough for the Swiss to seal their spot in Russia next summer.

Here Press Association Sport considers what was learned from the second-leg encounter at St Jakob-Park.

Nobody can question Northern Ireland's heart

Right from the first whistle, when five white shirts pushed on to pressure the Swiss from kick-off, it was obvious the visitors would go down fighting if this was to be the end of the road. In driving rain, on a bog of a pitch, there was mud, sweat and tears. Injury doubt Stuart Dallas, who arrived in Basel two days earlier on crutches, was the epitome of that Northern Irish spirit with a terrific display. O'Neill had told his players to have no regrets before this tie and, across 90 minutes on Swiss soil, he could not have asked for anything more.

They are far more than just a committed bunch

Hailing the Northern Irish's character should not detract from their quality. Facing a side featuring six players that play for Champions League or Europa League clubs, it was the visitors, with six players from Championship clubs, who looked the more technically adept. Millwall midfielder George Saville was instrumental, as was captain Steven Davis, and Jamie Ward, Conor Washington and Dallas all produced brilliant moments of skill. The counter-attacking move where Washington headed wide after excellent work from Saville and Ward was the best move of the match.

O'Neill's stock continues to rise, even in defeat

The celebrations at Switzerland's qualification were unlikely to be restricted to the Swiss themselves. Those deciding who should be the next manager with Scotland and the United States, as well as at Sunderland and Rangers, should be ecstatic that a boss of O'Neill's calibre could now be prised away. Some Swiss players believed Northern Ireland were actually better than Portugal were when they defeated Switzerland last month - a reflection of how well drilled O'Neill's team are.

The future may be brighter than first thought

O'Neill rightly noted that for many of his team, this was their last shot at making a World Cup. Over half of his starting XI were 30 or over and a rebuilding job is probably in order, though there are pieces to build around - whether O'Neill is still around to take charge or not. Saville was making his first international start but looks a real find and Jordan Jones, an international debutant, was lively when he came on. Throw in a fully-fit Paddy McNair, 22, and Craig Cathcart, 28, when he is back from injury and maybe Northern Ireland are not destined to return to the doldrums after all.

The manner of the loss will sting for years

Missing out on Russia would have been easier to take had Switzerland thrashed Northern Ireland in either Belfast or Basel. Yet, ultimately, the difference between the two teams was a first-leg penalty that should never been given for a handball against Corry Evans. O'Neill and his players were robbed by referee Ovidiu Hategan and no amount of sympathy or praise will ease the pain.

Press Association

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