Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's World Cup hopes take a battering from the Swiss

Controversial penalty leaves Russian dream hanging by a thread

By Adrian Rutherford

For so long they have dared to dream - but last night reality bit hard for Northern Ireland fans.

The road to Russia isn't done yet. However, it has suddenly got a lot harder.

A home loss to Switzerland means it is now win or bust in Basel on Sunday for our World Cup hopes.

On a night laden with tension, a controversial 58th minute penalty from Ricardo Rodriguez put the Swiss firmly in the driving seat of this play-off.

And now anything other than victory in the return leg will spell the end of the adventure.

For the thousands of expectant fans packed into Windsor Park last night, it wasn't meant to be like this. They know the prospect of a first World Cup since 1986 has taken a serious knock.

Yet last night many were still clinging to hope, refusing to let go of the dream.

Colin Chambers from Carrick, who is heading out to Switzerland on Sunday morning, said: "I still believe we can do it. It was a disappointing result tonight but we're capable of going there and winning - of course we are."

Much of the fans' anger was directed at the referee over that controversial penalty call.

Jon Taylor from Belfast branded it "a joke".

Among others there was steely defiance amid the disappointment.

Richard Kirk from Lisburn said: "Let people write us off - it will only motivate the players."

Boss Michael O'Neill was also remaining optimistic, saying: "I think we showed enough in the second half to get something… we've nothing to lose now."

They had called this the biggest match at Windsor Park in years.

The atmosphere had been building throughout the day as the streets came alive to the sights and sounds of excited supporters.

The Green and White Army were on the march again, with Windsor, glowing in the darkening November evening, their destination.

Inside, with the minutes to kick-off ticking down, the atmosphere heightened.

As the Queen anthem We Will Rock You boomed out, the place really was rocking.

Before the teams emerged to a wall of noise, six giant flags were carried out on to the pitch.

Each had a simple message - dream bigger.

The songs from the stands evoked memories of past heroes, from the genius of George Best to the glorious days of Espana '82.

In recent times, though, a new generation of players have written themselves into the pages of our footballing history. The names of Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Steven Davis were sung with gusto last night.

It was a particularly special occasion for Davis, the captain, making his 100th appearance.

The landmark occasion was marked with a presentation ahead of kick-off.

With so much at stake, this was always going to be a tense watch, a night filled with nerves and anxiety.

In the early minutes every pass from the home side was loudly cheered.

But as the match unfolded and the Swiss dominated, the tension grew.

The best chance of a scoreless first half fell to the visitors, with goalkeeper Michael McGovern diving to keep out Haris Seferovic's effort. Then 13 minutes into the second half disaster struck.

Corry Evans was harshly penalised for handball after blocking a shot from Xherdan Shaqiri, resulting in a penalty.

Rodriguez converted and Northern Ireland were behind.

The fans sensed the players needed a lift, and suddenly the noise levels were turned up a notch. Northern Ireland pressed for a goal - Chris Brunt came close with an effort from distance.

The final whistle was greeted with boos - not for the Northern Ireland players but for the referee, who took some serious stick from angry fans.

As the Journey hit Don't Stop Believing belted out around the ground, MC Pete Snodden had a final rallying call for fans ahead of the journey to Switzerland.

"Dare to dream - dream bigger," he told them.

As the qualification campaign moves on to a final day of destiny in Basel, Northern Ireland know they have it all to do.

Belfast Telegraph

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