Saturday 24 August 2019

We're not still stewing over penalty call, says Northern Ireland boss O'Neill

Michael O'Neill has told his Northern Ireland players to move on from Thursday's controverisal penalty decision
Michael O'Neill has told his Northern Ireland players to move on from Thursday's controverisal penalty decision

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill maintains his players still believe they can reach Russia and will not dwell on the penalty decision that could scupper their World Cup dream.

It is Switzerland who are currently on course to emerge from the play-offs with a finals ticket, having won 1-0 in Belfast thanks to a dubious penalty that still stings Northern Irish fans.

O'Neill insists his players are concentrating on overturning the deficit in Basel on Sunday, rather than stewing over referee Ovidiu Hategan believing Corry Evans handled Xherdan Shaqiri's shot.

"There's a lot of emotion in the dressing room after the game which is natural - but it's gone now," O'Neill declared.

"What happened in the game, we have to take motivation from it, but it's gone now in terms of where it is in the players' mind and the focus is on trying to get the result that could take us through.

"I said to the players on Friday what's happened has gone, we've got to leave it behind, it's not something we need to dwell on. Our focus is on what lies ahead, and not the officials."

O'Neill also wants to move on from the expletive-laden xenophobic tweet sent by Evans' wife, Lisa, in which she called referee Hategan a "Romanian gypsy c***!!!" before removing the post.

Her husband, who trained with the team at St Jakob-Park despite being suspended for the second leg, apologised on her behalf and O'Neill wants to draw a line under it.

"Corry issued a statement of apology straight away - we don't need to get into the nature of the tweet," he said.

"We're talking about a player who is suspended and can't play. We should maybe focus on the players who can play, that would be more relevant."

Overcoming their position to qualify will be a tall order given Switzerland have won nine competitive games on the spin at home and England are the only team to have won a qualifier on Swiss soil since 2008.

No European team has ever advanced through the play-offs after losing the home leg first too and the Northern Irish have now suffered three defeats in a row - to Germany, Norway and Switzerland, scoring just once in that time.

However, O'Neill insists his players are not mentally shot.

"I don't think they're short on confidence, I don't think they're short on belief," he added.

"It's different from qualification because Switzerland have been to the last 16 of the last two major tournaments. It lifts the level from qualification and we have to get to that level. That's the challenge.

"There's still a lot of confidence and belief in the group that they're capable of coming here and making things difficult for Switzerland, and hopefully we get the result that we are after."

O'Neill offered no update on the fitness of Stuart Dallas, who picked up a foot injury on Thursday, but it was telling that he took no part in the training session open to the media on Saturday.

PA Media

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