Belfast Telegraph

Comment: It's up to O'Neill to now issue a rallying cry to labouring Northern Ireland and those who dream bigger


By Julian Taylor

First night nerves, sliced by a feeling of ambition wavering on the precipice. This stumble across the high wire is, all things considered, likely to cost Northern Ireland dearly.

'Dream Bigger' is the catch-all slogan to capture the imagination from the marketing gurus at the Irish FA.

If ever an increased sense of absolute belief and determination to upset the odds existed for Northern Ireland it's now. And if there is any good news to extract from this disappointment, at least it is a position most of the players are well used to, over the years of manager Michael O'Neill's tenure.

Lack of both creativity and chances made for major disappointment on a night of promise.

Ricardo Rodriguez brought Switzerland deserved breathing space, the AC Milan defender's spot kick taking much sting out of the first leg.

This was Northern Ireland's first experience of a two-tier decider scenario, so while the difference in on-field approach compared to, say, that magical night against Greece to qualify for Euro 2016 was subtle - Basel still looms on Sunday, of course - the support from the stands was not.

It was as relentless as it was sensational. 'Raise Those Flags' urged the big screen, pre-match. On these nights, it is quite unbelievable the noise which can be generated by a 18,269 capacity crowd.

We seem to keep reiterating such tense sentiments, but the Switzerland showdown really was the latest, biggest game for the country in a generation. And no-one present on the busy, Belfast-bound trains were about to disagree.

Or, presumably, captain Steven Davis, whose determined expression beamed from local transport billboards. The new centurion's message for everyone was simple: Together We Can Make History.

Somehow, the Green and White Army identify when their team needs that extra layer. With Switzerland showing plenty of pace and poise throughout the early stages, the fans kept faith.

Northern Ireland lacked the sparkle emanating from the stands, and Swiss danger man Haris Seferovic could have made matters far worse, only for the Benfica player to miss a glaring chance in front of goal as the visitors kept pressing.

Inevitably, given the hosts' struggles, Ricardo Rodriguez's composed spot kick to put Switzerland ahead reflected their confident approach.

The forward pairing of Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis, meanwhile, regrettably personified Northern Ireland's night: labouring and lumpen of touch. Sharp lessons for Sunday.

With Conor Washington thrown on for Lafferty in the 75th minute, Northern Ireland sought something - anything, really - to no avail.

This afternoon's flight to Basel will likely be accompanied by a great deal of reflection on last night's loss, which has potentially inflicted fatal damage on the country's hopes of back-to-back major tournament qualification.

Yet with two games of utmost drama across four days, there isn't much time for navel-gazing. Enough damage has been done by an efficient Swiss unit.

O'Neill had hoped Vladimir Petkovic, his opposite number, still nursed a sense of grievance about not reaching the finals automatically, despite amassing 27 points in their group. That hope proved forlorn as the wedge of Swiss fans celebrated.

Unfortunately, O'Neill's outside theory that a play-off at wintry Windsor Park was somehow beneath those who ply their trade with clubs like Juventus, Arsenal and AC Milan was misplaced - and now it's up him to issue a rallying call to the thousands who will be travelling to Switzerland.

Northern Ireland face their biggest ever challenge in Basel. Their World Cup destiny is on a knife edge but this team are no strangers to dramatic cameos.

Moreover, for those who vigorously chanted 'Stand up for the Ulstermen', this tie isn't quite over.

Belfast Telegraph


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