Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Forget about world rankings, we have faith Northern Ireland can oust Switzerland

 

By John Laverty

So we've got ABI in the play-offs after all. Result!

To be honest, it could hardly have worked out any better.

The priority was securing 'Anybody But Italy' and, just after a rather uncomfortable looking Fernando Hierro had pulled what he called "North Ireland" from the glass bowl, out popped Switzerland as our opponents.

Home leg first next month but you can't have everything, and Michael O'Neill would certainly have settled for this outcome prior to attending yesterday's lunchtime draw in Zurich.

The manager's subsequent wry smile suggested he won't mind making a rapid return to the beautiful alpine country.

So we can keep daring to dream… of a fourth appearance in a World Cup finals series and of an historic back-to-back qualification for major tournaments.

But before the Green and White Army start counting their roubles, they should gather up some Swiss francs for what will almost certainly be a second leg in Basel with all to play for on November 12.

It may have been, relatively speaking, a dream draw, but this, the first play-off in our wee country's football history, is still capable of yielding a nightmare outcome.

Just because Switzerland aren't Italy doesn't mean they aren't any good.

They may have trudged off the pitch in Lisbon last week looking rather demoralised following a 2-0 defeat to reigning European champions Portugal, but don't forget that they had won all nine of their previous qualifying games in Group B - a run that included humbling the Portuguese by a similar scoreline in the corresponding fixture.

They are the highest ranked team in the play-offs - yes, four places better off than those hitherto must-be-avoided-at-all-costs Italians (who are ranked 15th), seven higher than the slick Croatians with their to-die-for midfield corps of Kovacic, Modric, Perisic and Rakitic - and 12 places ahead of us.

By all accounts they are the team most qualified - if that's not too ironic a word - to consider themselves unlucky that they aren't already Moscow-bound.

And they've a rich World Cup pedigree too, with 10 appearances in a finals series, including the last three tournaments.

Their team isn't packed with household names but the most familiar one, Stoke winger Xherdan Shaqiri - yes, he of the irregular but spectacular long-range goals - is more than capable of causing major problems to our defence.

Midfielder Granit Xhaka hasn't been endearing himself to the Arsenal fans recently - indeed, he was caught on camera picking his nose when he should have been tracking Watford's match-winning Tom Cleverly last weekend - but he's certainly an effective operator for the national team.

And veteran defender Stephan Lichtsteiner, the captain, will certainly feel he has a point to prove after being dropped by Juventus recently.

Now for reasons to be cheerful; our forthcoming opponents are certainly beatable, and history shows we do have the upper hand when it comes to the Swiss.

All told, the two countries have met four times, with our boys winning two and drawing one.

Having said that, Michael O'Neill wasn't even born the last time we celebrated a competitive victory over them - in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park 53 years ago, secured by a single Jobby Crossan goal.

A fledgling George Best was in the Bertie Peacock's team that day; he would go on to score a wonder goal in the corresponding fixture a month later, which Northern Ireland lost 2-1 in Lausanne.

The last time we played them was in a boring 0-0 friendly in Zurich back in 2004, a match that even veteran campaigners Roy Carroll and Aaron Hughes, who played that day, will struggle to remember.

So forget about past history, forget about world rankings… indeed, forget about the recent qualifying campaign which ended on a bit of a downer with those consecutive defeats by Norway and Germany.

The only thing that matters now is the match at Windsor Park on Thursday, November 9.

The opponents are formidable, but certainly not frightening to a group of players who have restored the fans' faith and Northern Ireland's credibility as a football nation over the last few years.

Seasoned Premier League campaigners such as Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Steven Davis - who have been through the bad days, of which there have been many - have enhanced their reputations on the international stage, while the likes of Josh Magennis and Conor McLaughlin have really come of age in the green and white shirt.

Meanwhile O'Neill - one of the younger players blooded by Billy Bingham as the legendary Northern Ireland boss tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to maintain the magic formula that saw his charges reach the World Cup finals series of Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986 - is well aware that, for the GAWA, this is the holy grail.

O'Neill wanted Switzerland; it's doubtful if opposite number Vladimir Petkovic feels the same way.

Hopefully his team dared to dream just a little too soon.

Belfast Telegraph

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