It is the end of the road. After 434 days, 10 matches a piece and after being ousted in their groups, one by the European champions and the other by the World’s best, the journey ends for both Switzerland and Northern Ireland in the World Cup qualifiers. Two sides at it until the bitter end with one final chance to claim a place in Russia. After part one of this shootout, we now come to the finale just three days later in Basel. One final game to decide if it will be Switzerland qualifying for a record fourth consecutive World Cup or if Northern Ireland will feature in the competition for the first time since 1986. The stakes are high and the chips are down in Switzerland on Sunday evening.
Thursday evening, the first leg at the historic Windsor Park in the capital, was full of optimism, hope, fear, nerves but also huge belief, from both sides. Northern Ireland have upset the odds for a while now after a dramatic turnaround under Michael O’Neill while Switzerland are riding the crest of a wave after successful qualifying campaigns and performances for and at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. The Swiss were favourites overall but in Belfast, where so many legends have graced the pitch and provided moments in time, Northern Ireland were ready to produce yet another one.
It didn’t work out like that and sadly, it was pretty much entirely to do with the man in the middle and not for the performance of the teams on the pitch that it didn’t. If we’re being honest, as both sets of fans have been in the aftermath, Switzerland deserved the victory. They controlled the game, they were the better team and quite frankly, the home side offered very little threat in what was a subdued performance from them, but the Swiss did not deserve to win in the manner that they did.
One ambitious strike from Xherdan Shaqiri and everything changed. No, it wasn’t Poland in 2016 all over again, but rather a defensive block to thwart something like that which resulted in the inexplicable award of a penalty from the referee. It wasn’t a penalty. That is the obvious and universal consensus, but the decision was made and Ricardo Rodriguez did not need to be asked twice to stick the penalty into the back of the net. A blow, not yet fatal, but one that gives this plucky Northern Ireland side a mountain to climb and will need this side to evoke the spirit of 1983 after a win over West Germany. Norman Whiteside was a hero that night, now they need a new one.
It is a shame that Thursday’s game was decided like it was. For a game predominantly played with the feet, it sure gets itself mired into controversial instances like that one and more often than not, in important matches, just ask Republic of Ireland too, they’ll know exactly the injustice their neighbours are feeling.
Switzerland though, won’t be mulling over all of that for too long, or at all. They left Belfast with a victory, an away goal and a huge advantage as they aim to finish the job and reach the World Cup. They haven’t lost a competitive home game in Switzerland since 2014 vs. England and before that, 2010 also vs. England. The only other national side to win competitively in Switzerland in the last 9 years was, remarkably, Luxembourg.
So, the odds are all in favour of Switzerland and, complacency being avoided, they should book their ticket in the place it all began last September with that thrilling 2-0 win vs. Portugal. Northern Ireland enjoy the odds being against them though and will come to St. Jakob-Park looking to provide a shock and banish the horrible memory from Thursday evening.
Lets just hope for everyone’s sake, the football does the talking this time.