Battling blank in Basel puts penalty back in sharp focus
Despite a spirited performance from Northern Ireland last night, the national team's World Cup wilderness will continue for at least 36 years.
‘The Battle of Basel’ – played on a pitch that resembled a field of conflict thanks to heavy rainfall yesterday – went a long way to restoring pride after Thursday night’s lacklustre defeat in Belfast.
However failing to find the net despite creating some good chances meant it was the Swiss who progress to Russia 2018 by the narrowest of margins – 1-0 over two legs.
The highly controversial penalty awarded to Switzerland in Belfast by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan now takes on even more significance as the only thing to separate the World Cup hopefuls.
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The scorer of that penalty – Ricardo Rodriguez – was to be the Swiss saviour again as he cleared a goal-bound header from Jonny Evans off the line as Northern Ireland piled on the pressure in the dying minutes.
The travelling Green and White Army were in fine voice – and needed to be to drown out the Swiss cowbells – but their team just could not muster the goal needed to take the game into extra-time.
The result means players like captain Steven Davis, 32, Euro 2016 hero Gareth McAuley, 37, and second highest cap holder Aaron Hughes, 39, are highly unlikely to have another chance to play at a World Cup finals – a spectacle last graced by Northern Ireland in 1986.
A fan posting on Facebook after the game described his pride at Northern Ireland’s second leg performance. He wrote: “Don’t know where to start but I cant find the words to describe how so proud I am tonight of that special team. We gave it our all but it wasn’t quite good enough in the end. Every single player can hold their head high.”
Another NI supporter saw the funny side, posting: “The weather in Russia is awful anyway.”
England striker and MOTD host Gary Lineker offered his commiserations on Twitter: “Great effort from Northern Ireland. To miss out to that penalty decision is just cruel.”
Radio Ulster presented Stephen Nolan commented: “Northern Ireland’s great performance makes that tube of a referee decision in the first match even more sickening.”
Respected football analysts also gave the opinion on Northern Ireland’s performance last night.
Chief football writer with the Times, Henry Winter wrote: “Northern Ireland’s players gave absolutely everything. That’s all you can ask for. That and a ref who doesn’t guess.”
The Mail on Sunday chief sports writer, Oliver Holt said: “Gutted for Northern Ireland and Michael O’Neill. What an effort. The World Cup will be poorer for the absence of them and their fans”
Bookmaker Paddy Power joked about NI legend Gerry Armstrong’s impassioned commentary on Sky Sports: “One nil to the Swiss on aggregate. 6-1 to Northern Ireland in Gerry Armstrong’s mind.”
• Morning View, page 52