Belfast (AFP) – Switzerland took a giant step towards qualifying for Russia 2018 on Thursday but needed a controversial penalty to earn a 1-0 win against Northern Ireland in the first leg of their World Cup play-off.
Vladimir Petkovic’s team dominated the match at Windsor Park in Belfast but squandered a succession of chances as Michael O’Neill’s team held them at bay.
The key moment came with just over half an hour to go, when Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley was blocked by Corry Evans in the box and the referee pointed to the spot, even though he appeared to have been hit on the shoulder as he took evasive action.
Ricardo Rodriguez made no mistake from the penalty spot, sending Michael McGovern the wrong way as the visitors finally made their superiority count to put them in the driving seat in the two-legged tie.
The Swiss are unlucky to find themselves in the play-offs after winning nine of their 10 games in Group B but were pipped to top spot by Portugal.
Emerging to a sea of green and white flags, Northern Ireland started brightly in a raucous atmosphere at Windsor Park and Switzerland’s Fabian Schaer was lucky to escape with just a yellow card after he flew into a reckless tackle on Stuart Dallas.
But the visitors quickly found their rhythm and established a stranglehold on the game, stretching the home side on both flanks and creating several promising openings as they peppered the home side’s penalty area.
Granit Xhaka had a couple of chances and the visitors came agonisingly close to taking the lead when Haris Seferovic latched onto the end of a fine cross from the impressive Shaqiri but McGovern saved smartly.
But despite dominating possession, Switzerland could not find a breakthrough as Northern Ireland, who conceded just six goals in their qualifying campaign, survived until the break.
Within seconds of the restart Shaqiri came close to breaking the deadlock with a curling left-footed effort that whistled just over as Northern Ireland continued to live dangerously and Seferovic was inches away from getting his boot to a cross.
But the away side needed a lucky break to finally edge ahead and it came courtesy of the seemingly soft penalty.
Northern Ireland, who posed a constant threat from set-pieces, went close to an equaliser when Josh Magennis connected with a free-kick from Chris Brunt but he steered his header wide.
Northern Ireland, who finished a distant second in Group C behind world champions Germany, are aiming to reach their first World Cup finals since 1986 and just the fourth in their history, while Switzerland have reached the past three tournaments.
The second leg takes place in Basel on Sunday.
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