Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill feeling aggrieved as Northern Ireland are left with a mountain to climb

 

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill last night blasted referee Ovidiu Hategan after his controversial penalty decision dealt a savage blow to Northern Ireland's World Cup qualification hopes.

Switzerland boast a 1-0 lead going into the second leg of the play-off in Basel on Sunday but the Northern Ireland boss was fuming with the spot-kick award and a tackle from Fabian Schar on Stuart Dallas in the fifth minute that could easily have been a red card instead of the yellow shown.

The Romanian official pointed to the spot in the 58th minute when Shaqiri's volley crashed into the side of Corry Evans as he turned his back and the midfielder was also booked for handball, ruling him out of Sunday's return game.

Even the Swiss players didn't appeal for a penalty and O'Neill fumed: "I'm staggered by the decision and staggered by the yellow card. The referee has no-one in his line of sight. Corry's arm isn't in an unnatural position, it's by his side. The ball hits him on the back more than anything. I thought the referee had blown for a foul or an offside. Nobody had claimed for it. It is bewildering really.

"It's such a defining moment in the match. The opening tackle by Fabian Schar was borderline. I thought it was a red card. The referee hasn't done us any favours.

"We have to forget about it. I thought the players' reaction to it was very good. We played much better in the second half, the game was even. We are still in the tie. Maybe a referee will give us a decision in the second leg.

"I'll have to pick the players up. There's anger in the dressing room. We're going to have to find a way to get a goal back.

"Stuart Dallas' injury is a blow. I thought the players who came on did well. We might look to freshen the team up on Sunday. We have to channel the anger.

"They still believe they are in the tie, that's the most important thing, it's not like we are going there with nothing to play for."

Eight years after Thierry Henry handled in the build-up to the goal which sent France through against the Republic of Ireland, it's now Northern Ireland who are seeing red. Evans had his arms tucked in as he rose to block Shaqiri's effort and the ball appeared to strike the top of his back.

Northern Ireland players and management were enraged by the call and some confronted the referee after the final whistle.

The crucial away goal now leaves O'Neill's men with a mountain to climb at St Jakob-Park in Basel.

The Swiss dominated up until the goal and Haris Seferovic forced Michael McGovern into a top class first-half save before being inches away from converting a cross shortly before the breakthrough did arrive.

Switzerland, who enjoyed 65 per cent of the possession, were the better side but the hosts, who failed to register a single shot on target for the first time since facing Poland at Euro 2016, still feel the penalty decision has seriously damaged their hopes of winning the play-off.

Shaqiri was the stand-out player for the Swiss and the Stoke winger took a diplomatic view of the penalty.

"I didn't see the penalty and I don't know if it was one or not," he said. "I tried to have a shot on goal and I don't know if he touched it with his hand or not.

"In the end the referee gave the penalty and that is football. I think we controlled the game for 90 minutes and we had a lot of ball possession and created a lot of chances too, it was only a matter of time until we scored. I think we deserved the win. It is the best result we could get here because we knew it was going to be very difficult."

Belfast Telegraph

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