Northern Ireland 0-1 Switzerland report: Referee hands Swiss the advantage
N Ireland 0 Switzerland 1
A moment of controversy from referee Ovidiu Hategan has put a huge stumbling block on Northern Ireland's road to Russia.
The Romanian official was booed and berated at the final whistle by 17,000 fuming fans who were incensed that he had awarded Switzerland a 57th minute penalty for a handball by Corry Evans - even though television pictures showed the volley from Stoke's Xherdan Shaqiri had struck the shoulder blade of the Blackburn Rovers midfielder.
Hategan fuelled even more anger amongst players and fans by booking Evans which rules the 27-year-old out of the return leg in Basel this weekend.
AC Milan full-back Ricardo Rodriguez took full advantage by stroking the penalty home to score a vital away goal which could prove crucial come 6.45pm on Sunday evening.
In Northern Ireland's biggest game in Belfast since the World Cup qualifying victory over Israel 36 years ago, and on the occasion of skipper Steven Davis' 100th cap for his country, the men in green - wearing their new retro-style shirts - struggled for large parts of this play-off as the Swiss held the momentum.
But for all their possession and endeavour, the visitors needed the assistance of the ref to break the deadlock.
Few inside Windsor Park could dispute that Switzerland deserved to win, but they did not deserve to win this way. The referee became the pivotal figure.
But where there is life, there is hope and the sense of injustice may yet lift a Northern Ireland side who did not perform as they can last night. They have one last chance now to put that right.
Kyle Lafferty, having scored nine goals in 15 appearances for club Hearts, was selected to lead the attack with Josh Magennis on the right and Stuart Dallas retaining his place ahead of the returning Jamie Ward on the left.
Switzerland's Stoke star Shaqiri started on the right of a 4-3-3 formation, Arsenal's Granit Xhaka was deployed to pull the strings in midfield while Rodriguez was the major threat down the left wing with his dangerous and tantalising crosses.
Following a raucous Windsor Park welcome of intense colour and noise, in the opening exchanges the Swiss appeared nervous and hesitant, losing possession and allowing Northern Ireland to push them back as Lafferty and Magennis attempted to impose themselves on a defence led by Juventus star Stephan Lichtsteiner.
On five minutes, Dallas showed excellent pace to beat his man on the halfway line but, as he raced towards the box, Fabian Schar was determined to make sure he wouldn't go any further and brought him down crudely, earning the Deportivo La Coruna man a yellow card that might arguably have been red.
Northern Ireland were unable to punish the Swiss from the free kick and the Alpine visitors were invigorated with Xhaka the architect in the centre of midfield. His powerful runs and slick passing were a problem.
Similar to the Polish at Euro 2016, the visitors were targeting Conor McLaughlin at right-back with Steven Zuber and Rodriguez attempting to exploit the Millwall defender.
On 10 minutes, Switzerland threatened for the first time when Rodriguez's cross was headed back to Blerim Dzemaili and Jonny Evans made a vital block. The ball ran out to Xhaka on the edge of the box but his shot flew over the bar.
With their fast-flowing football, the Swiss were starting to sweep past the Northern Ireland midfield and when Zuber, on the left, pulled it back to Xhaka, the midfielder once again failed to hit the target.
This was sustained pressure from the away side - a bombardment on the Northern Ireland defence forcing errors to creep into their game with Corry Evans and Ollie Norwood struggling at times to find their man but they did eventually settle into the game.
There was brief respite when Lafferty won a corner with a volley on 14 minutes but that didn't last for long and McAuley had to make a goal-saving block, Jonny Evans needed to be strong in the air and Michael McGovern produced a magnificent low save with his finger tips on 17 minutes to deny Haris Seferovic, who stretched to divert the ball goal-wards just five yards out after a Shaqiri cross.
Northern Ireland were clearing their lines but it was just coming back at them with considerable force. However, the Swiss couldn't break the green resistance.
There were gasps among the crowd on the half hour mark when Jonny Evans made a decisive headed clearance after a dangerous free kick into the box from Rodriguez and, on 35 minutes Seferovic, Switzerland's top goalscorer during qualifying, couldn't direct his header goal-wards.
Northern Ireland were reliant on their Premier League stars Jonny Evans, McAuley, Davis and Brunt to bring some much needed composure to the performance, however they needed help too.
Just 25 seconds into the second half and the Swiss came within inches of opening the scoring. Brunt failed to clear a deep cross from Rodriguez and it fell to Shaqiri, who controlled it well before unleashing a curling shot that shaved the bar. Dallas, having taken a knock in the first half, was still struggling, so boss O'Neill allowed Jamie Ward to make his international comeback from injury - the Nottingham Forest man's first cap since Norway at home in March.
While Ward injected an initial sparkle into the team, it was the Swiss who came extremely close to scoring following his introduction when Dzemaili and Seferovic combined well in the box but the Benfica man just couldn't get a connection.
Seconds later, though, referee Hategan - who officiated that defeat to Poland at Euro 2016 - dealt the hosts a huge blow with his penalty decision and, to the relief of the travelling Swiss support in a corner of Windsor, they now held an advantage.
Tigerish Ward was battling hard for the Northern Ireland cause on the left, making life difficult for Dzemaili, and new-boy midfielder George Saville replaced Corry Evans on 65 minutes as O'Neill tried to bring much needed impetus into the play.
On 71 minutes, Magennis couldn't steer his header goal-wards after being found by Brunt's free kick and then, two minutes later, the West Brom defender was just wide with a free kick 25 yards from goal.
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic made his first change on 77 minutes, bringing on Breel Embolo for Seferovic, and O'Neill also used the break in play to introduce QPR striker Conor Washington for Lafferty.
Northern Ireland were suddenly camped inside the Swiss half, with Magennis using his long throws as a serious weapon with Evans and McAuley the targets.
Windsor Park erupted in derision on 82 minutes when the ball appeared to be blocked by the arm of Rodriguez after a shot from Magennis, while Washington, Ward and Saville threatened but to no avail.
However, if Northern Ireland can perform in Basel like they did for the final 10 minutes of this encounter then they have a chance.
A bump in road, but not the end of the world just yet. Russia is just about still within sight but we have a mountain to climb.
N Ireland: McGovern, C McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt, C Evans (Saville, 65 mins), Norwood, Davis, Magennis, K Lafferty (Washington, 78 mins), Dallas (Ward, 52 mins). Unused subs: Mannus, Ferguson, Hodson, Jones, Lund, McNair, Hughes, McArdle, Carroll.
Switzerland: Sommer, Lichtsteiner, Schar, Akanji, Rodriguez, Zakaria, Xhaka, Shaqiri, Dzemaili (Frei, 83 mins), Zuber (Mehmedi, 87 mins), Seferovic (Embolo, 77 mins). Unused subs: Hitz, Lacroix, Elvedi, Lang, Freuler, E Fernandes, G Fernandes, Gavranovic, Burki.
Man of the match: Jonny Evans
Match rating: 6/10
Referee: Ovidiu Alin Hategan (Romania)