Northern Ireland face an uphill struggle to reach a first World Cup since 1986 after losing to Switzerland in controversial circumstances in the first leg of their play-off at Windsor Park.
Ricardo Rodriguez scored with a penalty just before the hour mark after Corry Evans was deemed to have handled inside the area.
Though that decision was harsh as the ball clearly struck the defender’s shoulder, the visitors were dominant throughout and might have won by a greater margin had they converted a series of other chances.
They are now strong favourites to reach a fourth consecutive World Cup when the two sides meet again in the second leg in Basel on Sunday.
The result was a disappointment for Northern Ireland, who followed an impressive qualifying campaign with a below-par performance in their first major finals play-off.
Michael O’Neill’s side had finished second in Group C behind Germany. Six wins from their 10 matches was more than they had mustered in any previous World Cup qualifying campaign.
Switzerland led Group B throughout, having won nine fixtures in a row, but lost their last game 2-0 to Portugal to miss out on automatic qualification on goal difference.
Biggest home game in 36 years falls flat
In front of a raucous crowd of more than 18,000, Northern Ireland posed little threat for most of the game in the country’s biggest match at Windsor Park for 36 years.
The Northern Irish have only reached the World Cup three times – in 1958, 1982 and 1986 – but are aiming to take part in back-to-back major tournaments for the first time, having played at Euro 2016 in France.
O’Neill’s men boasted a formidable recent home record and had kept four clean sheets in their five qualifying games at Windsor Park, with last month’s 3-1 defeat by Germany their first competitive home defeat for more than four years.
They had also won seven of their past 10 competitive matches in Belfast, but on this occasion they were never a match for three-time World Cup quarter-finalists Switzerland.
Kyle Lafferty headed over in the first half but the men in green’s best chance fell to Josh Magennis, who headed off target from a Chris Brunt free-kick late in the game.
Rodriguez appeared to handle in the area soon after but referee Ovidiu Hategan waved play on, one of a number of baffling decisions made by the Romanian official.
Away goal puts Swiss in control
Switzerland – who are 11th in the Fifa rankings, 12 places above their opponents – controlled proceedings, stamping their authority on the game from the outset and eventually securing the away goal to swing the tie firmly in their favour.
AC Milan defender Rodriguez sent goalkeeper Michael McGovern the wrong way from the spot to put his side well on their way to an 11th World Cup finals and their fourth in succession.
The visitors made light of the absence of Udinese midfielder Valon Behrami and ex-Arsenal defender Johan Djourou, with Gunners midfielder Granit Xhaka a prominent figure throughout.
He volleyed over the bar in the first half, while Haris Seferovic saw his close-range effort brilliantly saved by McGovern.
Early in the second half, Shaqiri curled an effort just off target and Seferovic was unable to connect with a cross from three yards out with the goal gaping.
But it was the penalty award that had everyone talking.
‘Welcome to the dark ages’
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill on Sky Sports: “The referee has no-one in his line of sight. Corry’s arm isn’t in an unnatural position, it’s by his side. The ball hits him on the back more than anything. I thought the referee had blown for a foul or an offside. Nobody had claimed for it.
“I’m staggered by the decision, staggered by the yellow card.
“It’s such a defining moment in the match. The opening tackle by Fabian Schar was borderline. I thought it was a red card. The referee hasn’t done us any favours.”
Northern Ireland midfielder Evans: “It’s disgraceful. I clearly didn’t put my hand up. I’m gutted. It’s devastating.”
BBC Radio 5 live presenter (and ardent Northern Ireland fan) Colin Murray at Windsor Park: “Feel free to take the mic out of my hands if I overstep the mark in the next 20 minutes. We talked about history and occasion and how football can be a catalyst for change and for heroes. Yet here we are talking about referees. It’s the dark ages. Welcome to the dark ages.
“The Republic of Ireland had Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009 in a play-off for the 2010 World Cup. It was such a baffling decision tonight. There is nobody in Wales, England or Scotland who thinks that was a penalty. Nobody in Switzerland thought it was a penalty. It was shocking. Here’s a clue: if the opposing team do not appeal for a penalty and you’re standing on the wrong side of the player, it’s probably not a penalty.
“There’s no point reading out texts or tweets. There are no shades of grey with that decision.”
Former Northern Ireland defender John O’Neill: “It was a terrible decision. It hit him on the top of the shoulder at best. You have to gauge the reaction of the players. They didn’t think it was a penalty. The referee was awful through the whole game. He’s the worst referee I’ve seen in a long time. It did spoil the night.
“I was disappointed with the Northern Ireland performance. In a game of this stature, we didn’t perform. Switzerland were the better side by a mile. But if they didn’t get the penalty, we’d have played awfully and might have got away with a 0-0 draw.”
A defining 90 minutes in store for NI and O’Neill
Northern Ireland now face a major battle to pull back their deficit at St Jakob’s Park in Basel, a ground at which only England have beaten Switzerland in a 17-game run stretching back to 2001.
O’Neill’s men must plan for the game without Corry Evans, who received a second yellow card of the campaign for his alleged handling offence, which led to the penalty.
Evans was one of eight Northern Ireland players who went into the game one booking away from being ruled out of the second leg, a list which included skipper Steven Davis, who won his 100th cap in the first leg.
If Northern Ireland fail to progress, the match in Switzerland may be the last in a Northern Ireland shirt for international veterans Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Chris Brunt.
A defeat may also serve to increase speculation linking Edinburgh-based O’Neill with the Scotland managerial position left vacant by the recent departure of Gordon Strachan.
‘We have to channel the anger’
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill on Sky Sports: “We have to forget about the penalty. I thought the players’ reaction to it was very good. We played much better in the second half, the game was even. We are still in the tie. Maybe a referee will give us a decision in the second leg.
“I’ll have to pick the players up. There’s anger in the dressing room. We’re going to have to find a way to get a goal back. Stuart Dallas’ injury is a blow. I thought the players who came on did well. We might look to freshen the team up on Sunday. We have to channel the anger.”
Switzerland forward Xherdan Shaqiri on Sky Sports: “I don’t know if it was a penalty or not. I tried to get a shot on target and I don’t know if he touched it with his hand or not. In the end the referee gave the penalty. That is football.
“We controlled the game over 90 minutes, had a lot of possession and created chances. We played much better than Northern Ireland and deserved to win.
“It is, for us, the best result to get. We knew it would be difficult. They have their own fans behind them. We are looking forward to Basel, the second leg and trying to win again to reach the World Cup.”
The stats you need to know
- This is the first time Northern Ireland have lost back-to-back home games since February 2012 (a run of three).
- Indeed, they have now conceded in consecutive home games for the first time since October 2015, following a run of eight clean sheets in nine games at Windsor Park.
- The hosts failed to register a single shot on target for the first time since facing Poland at Euro 2016.
- All three of Ricardo Rodriguez’s goals for Switzerland in this qualifying process have come away from home, making him the top Swiss away scorer in World Cup 2018 qualifying.
- Switzerland have now won 10 of their past 11 competitive games, with the exception being last month’s loss to Portugal which forced them into the play-off.