Thursday 20 September 2018

Northern Ireland fail to qualify for FIFA World Cup after goalless draw in Basel

George Saville of Northern Ireland during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Switzerland and Northern Ireland at St. Jakob's Park in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
George Saville of Northern Ireland during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Switzerland and Northern Ireland at St. Jakob's Park in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Through the mud and the rain of Basel, Northern Ireland gave everything they had last night, but it was not enough for a goal against Switzerland and not enough for a place at the World Cup.

In almost impossible conditions Northern Ireland threw the lot at Switzerland but having lost 1-0 in Belfast on Thursday, they needed to win this one. Above all else they needed a goal. But they could not score one and in truth they did not create enough chances. The closest they came was in the first minute of added time, when Jonny Evans’ far post header was hacked off the line by Ricardo Rodriguez.

The margins are so fine in these two-legged play-offs and ultimately this tie was decided by the ludicrous penalty decision against Corry Evans at Windsor Park. That penalty was the only goal over three hours of football, and while Switzerland were the better team over the two legs, no much would have needed to go differently for Northern Ireland to be booking their flights to Russia on Monday morning.

So this campaign, and getting this close to the World Cup, must be a great source of pride for these players, staff and fans. Even if the match itself was not exactly high quality. Had it not had the world riding on it, it would have been written off as a farce, giving how hard it was to play football out there.

It had been raining sideways all day in Basel, and so the conditions were as hard as the stakes were high. Despite the futile re-gritting of the pitch beforehand, it was boggy and the ball struggled to move across the pitch. Mud spat up with every tackle. Within minutes every player on the pitch was soaked in mud and there was always something slightly lower league about this duel to get into the biggest show on earth.

This should have helped Northern Ireland and they started with their direct purposeful football, making the most of Conor Washington’s willingness to run himself into the mud. He tried to force Switzerland back and Chris Brunt tested Yann Sommer with two rockets from 30-yards.

But Switzerland, to their credit, found a way to play their football even out on this sticky pitch. The wingers Steven Zuber and Xherdan Shaqiri kept on coming – they were simply stronger and quicker than their visitors - and they created more than enough chances to kill the tie. Zuber failed to turn in a Shaqiri cross, Gareth McAuley had to stab away Blerim Dzemaili’s cross, Haris Seferovic hit one into the side netting,

With a flurry of chances late in the first half, Switzerland had Northern Ireland on the ropes but could not finish them off. Shaqiri’s shot forced Michael McGovern down low to save, Seferovic’s header hit Zuber, Zuber himself had a shot saved by McGovern’s legs before flashing another effort wide.

But the longer the game went on at 0-0, the more empowered Northern Ireland were. They only needed to nick one to take the game to extra time. Switzerland knew it and started to retreat as the second half went on. Jamie Ward surged down the right and crossed to Washington, whose header beat Sommer but flew just wide of the post. Washington was tiring but next up he still spun his way down the left and passed to George Saville, who could not get enough power on his shot.

The game got worse as it went on though, the players’ legs exhausted by having to slog through the mud. Michaeol O’Neill threw on Jordan Jones and Josh Magennis, hoping one of them could spark something in the final third. Switzerland had plenty of chances to kill it but Northern Ireland did have their one real chance, right at the very end. Evans got up at the far post, heading towards goal, but Rodriguez volleyed it off the line. They were centimetres away from taking the tie to extra time, but as they know, being the wrong side of a margin that fine is not enough.

Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schar, Akanji, Rodriguez; Zakaria, Xhaka; Shaqiri (Freuler, 80), Dzemaili (Mehmedi, 61), Zuber; Seferovic (Embolo, 87)

Northern Ireland (4-5-1) : McGovern; Hughes, Evans, McAuley, Brunt; Ward (Jones, 75), Davis, Norwood (Magennis, 75), Saville, Dallas; Washington

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