Northern Ireland did extremely well to finish second in their tough Qualifying Group, finishing above the Czech Republic and Norway to end up second only to the unbeaten Germans, but they were then given another difficult task in the Play-Offs against Granit Xhaka’s Switzerland side.
But the plucky Irish gave as good as they got in the first leg and were only beaten by a very controversial penalty decision. As the Guardian put it….Northern Ireland were outplayed – and you can’t help but feel this tie is done before Sunday’s second leg in Basel – but they were mightily unfortunate to find themselves on the wrong end of one of the most ludicrous refereeing decisions you’ll ever see. The Windsor Park crowd is giving the officials pelters for awarding the penalty that allowed Ricardo Rodriguez to score the only goal and put Switzerland in control of the tie. It was never a penalty. That said, Switzerland were the better side by a considerable distance and it’s difficult to see how Michael O’Neill can turn this in his team’s favour. Still, it isn’t over yet.
The Northern Irish certainly seem to have a real axe to grind, but Xhaka thinks that his Swiss team fully deserve to go to Russia and expects them to finish the job next week at home. ‘I don’t know why it is such a big topic or why there is so much discussion,’ he said.
‘I think we have to leave it. I think we were the better team. We want to show that again and qualify for Russia.
‘I think we are a good team and maybe a better team when compared to Northern Ireland.
‘To discuss the penalty, and whether it was a penalty or not, it is the decision of the referee and not of interest to us.’
The Arsenal midfielder may be confident, but stranger things have been known to happen in Qualifiers and the Irish are not known for chucking in the towel. Granit may find it harder than he thinks in the second leg this week….