NI v Switzerland: Michael O’Neill’s focusing on return leg in Basel

Referee Ovidiu Hategan dismisses questions by Northern Ireland's Oliver Norwood, Steve Davis and Gareth McAuley

After the sea of colour and storm of noise came silence as, with 57 minutes on the clock, one decision by referee Ovidiu Hategan defined the first leg of Northern Ireland’s World Cup play-off and potentially destroyed 14 months of hard work.

The decision to award a penalty kick following a deflection off Corry Evans’ shoulder from a long-range Xherdan Shaqiri shot left the majority of the 18.269 crowd stunned and the Northern Ireland camp shocked.

Manager Michael O’Neill spoke of the need to now turn the sense of injustice into inspiration as Northern Ireland head for Basel and Sunday’s second - and final - step on the road to Russia.

“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” said O’Neill. “The players feel hard done by, they are angry but, to be fair, the reaction was very good and we have to channel that into Sunday night.

“We have to believe that, at 1-0 down, we are very much in the tie.

“It is obviously game-changing but dwelling on it isn’t going to do us any good.

“Whatever label you put on it is irrelevant, the most important thing is we use it in the right way, we overcome it and channel it into the game on Sunday.

“We go into the second leg with the strongest team available and I think we showed enough in the second half to believe we can get something.

“We are kind of in a situation in which we have nothing to lose now and we will see how the Swiss deal with that on their home territory.”

Evans entered the match as one of eight Northern Ireland players one card away from second-leg suspension - with the penalty incident serving up a double blow as the midfielder picked up the ultimate punishment of a decisive yellow.

O’Neill, however, is backing Evans to bounce back and the squad to regroup ahead of Sunday.

“It will be fine in terms of time to refocus,” said O’Neill. “There was clearly anger on the pitch and with eight players on bookings I was a little bit concerned as it would have been easy to pick up another, although Corry now misses the second leg.

“Corry will be extremely disappointed but he’s got good team-mates and his brother (Jonny) in there and he’ll be fine.

“He’ll travel with us to Switzerland and it would be great if we could turn the tie on its head for him.

“If anything, it’s not like he committed a poor challenge or done something stupid, he just blocked the ball and the referee made a poor decision off the back of it.”

Fabian Schar’s first-half challenge on Stuart Dallas left O’Neill frustrated at the short-term decision to only award the Switzerland player a yellow - plus concerned over his winger’s long-term prospects of recovering in time for the second leg.

“In terms of the big incidents in the game, the tackle by Schar was, having seen it back, I feel a red card as he’s out of control with both feet off the ground,” said O’Neill. “Stuart’s touch and go to be honest, he did great to last as long as he did.

“Half-time wasn’t a good thing because, naturally, it stiffened up.

“You could see in the early part of the second half that he was struggling.

“We’re very stretched in terms of players fit and available.

“Jamie Ward’s got 40 minutes under his belt this season and we’re asking him to come in for a game of that magnitude.”

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