Saturday 21 July 2018

O'Neill 'bewildered' by ref justice

N ireland 0 Switzerland 1

Corry Evans reacts after being booked for handball in the controversial incident which led to Switzerland’s winning penalty. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Corry Evans reacts after being booked for handball in the controversial incident which led to Switzerland’s winning penalty. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Liam Blackburn

Northern Ireland experienced their own Thierry Henry moment in a World Cup play-off as Switzerland gained the upper hand in Belfast with a controversially-awarded penalty.

Eight years after Henry handled in the build-up to the goal which sent France through against the Republic of Ireland, referee Ovidiu Hategan awarded a penalty in Belfast when he ruled Xherdan Shaqiri's volley struck Corry Evans' arm, which was tucked into his side, as he turned his body from close range.

Ricardo Rodriguez converted the spot-kick in the 58th minute to give the visitors an away goal and a 1-0 lead ahead of Sunday's return leg in Basel, where Michael O'Neill's men have it all to do.

They will be driven on there by a sense of injustice because of a decision that may well have been overturned had a video referee, which is being trialled in England's friendly with Germany tonight, been in place.

Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis (right) and Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez battle for the ball at Windsor Park. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis (right) and Switzerland's Ricardo Rodriguez battle for the ball at Windsor Park. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

For a team aiming to be the first in 32 years to represent Northern Ireland at a World Cup, and one O'Neill had called more deserving of success than anyone else in his programme notes, it was a harsh blow.

Described

This was the biggest fixture staged in Belfast since Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 in 2015 to qualify for the European Championship but will be remembered for the decision which the former Shamrock Rovers boss described as "bewildering".

O'Neill was at a loss to explain the decision while also suggesting Switzerland defender Fabian Schar should have received a red card for a reckless early challenge on Stuart Dallas.

"It's staggering really that the referee can give that penalty decision in that situation," O'Neill said. "He was six yards from the incident, he has no one in his line of sight.

"Corry has just gone to block it, his body is turned and the ball actually hits him more on the shoulder than the arm so it is incredible.

Switzerland's Stephan Lichtsteiner (left) and Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas battle for the ball. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Switzerland's Stephan Lichtsteiner (left) and Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas battle for the ball. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

"I thought he had blown for a foul or for offside, so to give a penalty for that, when nobody appealed, it is bewildering really. In such a defining moment in the match we feel very hard done by. The tackle by Schar was a borderline red card, the referee certainly didn't do us any favours tonight."

Switzerland were worthy of their win at Windsor Park and had several chances to have won the game in less controversial circumstances, while the hosts failed to register a shot on target.

O'Neill wants his side to channel their sense of injustice and turn the tie around on Sunday.

"We have to forget about it, I thought the players' reaction was very good," he added. "It's very difficult when you go behind in a game of this magnitude to an incident like that but I thought they reacted very well.

"We are still in the tie, we are only 1-0 down and maybe we will get the good fortune of having a referee who will give us a decision like that in the second leg.

"I won't have to pick them up, you can tell there is anger in the dressing room, they are very aggrieved by what happened. They still believe they are in the tie, that's the most important thing, it's not like we are going there with nothing to play for."

Shaqiri was the stand-out player for the Swiss and the Stoke winger took a diplomatic view of the penalty.

"I didn't see the penalty and I don't know if it was one or not," he said. "I tried to have a shot on goal and I don't know if he touched with his hand or not.

"In the end the referee gave the penalty and that is football. I will have to look again at the situation.

"I think we controlled the game for 90 minutes and we had a lot of ball possession and created a lot of chances too, it was only a matter of time until we scored. I think we deserved the win.

"For us it is the best result we could get here because we knew it was going to be very difficult."

Irish Independent

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