Furious Jonny Evans says penalty decision was 'even worse than the Thierry Henry v Ireland handball'
The good news for Northern Ireland is they still have another 90 minutes to try to put things right but they will travel to Basel for the second leg of this World Cup play-off on Sunday nursing an acute and indisputable sense of injustice.
Switzerland were the better team but they owe their slender lead largely thanks to an alarmingly incompetent piece of officiating from Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan that Michael O’Neill called the worst he had ever seen in international football and saw the biggest night of football in Belfast for 36 years descend into acrimony.
“Staggering” and “bewildering” were two of the other words the livid Northern Ireland manager used to describe Hategan’s decision to penalise Corry Evans for a perceived handball, when in fact the ball had hit his back, and award the Swiss a penalty that Ricardo Rodriguez converted.
To compound matters, Evans picked up a booking in the process and will now be suspended for the second leg and Hategan’s decision to book rather than send off Switzerland defender Fabian Schar for an awful, two footed lunge on Stuart Dallas in the fifth minute merely added insult to injury. Dallas struggled on before being substituted early in the second half and could also now miss the return game.
What is it about the Irish, handballs and World Cup play-offs? Few across the border in Ireland have forgotten about Thierry Henry’s unpunished handball in the lead up to the goal from William Gallas that controversially sent France to the 2010 World Cup finals.
And if Hategan’s ineptitude is not to play a crucial role in taking Switzerland to Russia, Northern Ireland will have to make history. No team has ever lost the first leg of a World Cup play-off at home and retrieved the situation. They must also overcome a side that has not lost a competitive home match for over three years.
"It was actually a worse decision (than Thierry Henry's handball) because the ref has made a call that was not there," Jonny Evans, Corry's brother, said
Asked if he had seen a poorer decision from a referee, O’Neill said: “Well certainly not in any of the games that I have been involved in, particularly at this level, no. I am not in a position to say the referee is incompetent but it’s just staggering in this day and age when the stakes are so high that something like that is a game changer.
“The ball clearly strikes Corry on the back and the referee has a clear view of the incident. I thought he had given an offside or something. I spent three hours in a video conference with Fifa the other week on video assistant referees (VAR) and certainly when you see what happened tonight you would be an advocate of it.”
VAR will be trialled for the first time in an official game in the UK in England’s friendly against Germany at Wembley on Friday evening although a fat lot of good that does Northern Ireland.
In truth, though, help and video replays should not have been required in this instance, and when Hategan did point to the spot, the only surprise greater than that on the faces of the players was that the assistant referee did not intervene and explain to Hategan the error of his ways.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s reaction after rifling a volley at Evans, who was standing only a few yards away, was telling in itself. There was no appeal for a penalty from the Stoke playmaker who, like most others, had seen Evans turn his back on the shot and watch it deflect off the upper back part of his shoulder and away.
“It was disgraceful,” Evans said. “I clearly didn’t put my hand up. I know it him me on the back of the shoulder and I’m just absolutely gutted. He’s booked me which means I’m out of the second leg as well which is devastating.”
Just as Northern Ireland cannot allow anger to ruin their focus in Basel, though – O’Neill talked about channeling that rage – so they will have to perform better than they did here.
Switzerland created the better chances and looked the superior side, although Northern Ireland’s reaction after the penalty was impressive. However, for large periods of the first half they were sucked deeper and deeper and rode their luck, as they did at times before Rodriguez scored.
Haris Seferovic should have scored in the 17th minute. Shaqiri played a sublime raking pass on the turn over the head of Gareth McAuley and into the path of the Benfica striker, who stuck out a foot and poked the ball towards the far corner which Michael McGovern managed to get his fingertips to.
Jonny Evans had earlier made a terrific block to deny Blerim Dzemaili, who later provided a cross that Seferovic narrowly failed to reach as it zipped across the face of the goal. Northern Ireland’s best hope of a goal looked to be from a set-piece but they wasted a series of good dead ball situations and Josh Magennis was guilty of sending a header wide from an inviting position from Chris Brunt’s free-kick.