WORLD CUP OPINION: Night in Basel so close to perfection by O’Neill’s Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill in reflective mood in Basel. Pic by INPHO.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill in reflective mood in Basel. Pic by INPHO.

If Sunday, November 12 stands as the end of an era for Northern Ireland it is poignant that Michael O’Neill’s 53rd game in charge of the national team marked possibly the finest example of his endeavour.

The scoreless draw in Basel signalled the final point on our road to Russia but if ever glorious failure was elevated beyond one of elite-level sport’s most patronising terms it was last night thanks to a performance that combined team spirit with tactical skill.

O’Neill’s decision to reshape the line-up with Aaron Hughes, Jamie Ward, Conor Washington and George Saville in the starting side helped to inject extra energy compared to the first leg last Thursday in Belfast.

His substitutions also offered evidence of O’Neill’s ability to devise and deliver a gameplan on the grandest stage as Jordan Jones offered another attacking challenge for the rattled Swiss defence and Josh Magennis’ introduction increased the aerial threat alongside the promotion of centre-back Gareth McAuley into the frontline.

Having failed to find the target across the full fixture of home football, Northern Ireland repeatedly tested the Switzerland resolve at St Jakob-Park.

After 14 months of a gruelling World Cup qualifying campaign played out over 12 tests, the harsh reality that Northern Ireland’s future was essentially decided by a controversial penalty decision last week in Belfast will remain a cruel reminder of the fine margins in sport.

The pain of Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty aside, on a night of raw emotion from the stands the Windsor Park performance proved stagnant in contrast to the high stakes.

Concerns over the risk of additional bookings depleting the squad options for Switzerland, alongside the standard tactical chess of a two-leg test, may have been central in Belfast.

Last night - in pursuit of a goal needed to cancel out that first-leg deficit - Northern Ireland delivered a display that will live long in the memory.

The partnership of planning and preparation executed alongside pride and passion on the pitch almost allowed Northern Ireland to make history as the first side to progress in a World Cup play-off after a first-leg loss.

Switzerland’s first-leg control lacked the cutting edge to cap a night of command in possession and on home soil, in defence of an unbeaten competitive record stretching back to 2008, they, once again, failed to deliver the precision associated with the nation.

Switzerland’s ability to create and carve open any opposition defence is an accepted truth of international football. Northern Ireland’s attacking adventure was an obvious requirement given the balance of the play-off but still served as a surprise in terms of the sustained pressure produced.

A glance at the exalted club names connected to Switzerland’s squad signals the gap in reputation compared to the options available to O’Neill.

His ability to galvanise a group of players with limited top-level experience in daily football and produce on the international stage has led to a landmark EURO 2016 finals and effectively one controversial penalty decision away from a World Cup appearance.

If Basel proves the final opportunity for O’Neill’s Northern Ireland to represent our nation alongside the global greats it can be remembered as a performance close to perfection.

The lasting hope is O’Neill reflects on last night as not just the final step of one journey but the first towards future Northern Ireland challenges.