So Thursday night happened. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to bed and woken up so devastated in my life.
I hate talking about the referee after a defeat because it sounds like bitterness but he has rightly been the centre of attention since his complete blunder on Thursday evening.
or anybody who doesn’t know what I’m speaking of, in the 58th minute at Windsor Park, a shot was crashed in by Xherdan Shaqiri that struck Corry Evans on the shoulder and the referee inexplicably pointed to the spot.
BBC pundit Colin Murray put it perfectly after the match, essentially stating that if you’re on the wrong side of play and hardly any Swiss players appeal, you probably shouldn’t be giving a penalty. Walking out of Windsor Park on Thursday night was a sickening feeling, two years of superb performances potentially made redundant by the mistake of one man completely out of our control.
As poor as the refereeing performance was, Northern Ireland are very fortunate to be travelling to Basel still in the tie. Generally speaking, I hate statistics but in this instance, Switzerland’s 63% possession was a very fair reflection of the pattern of the match.
If anything it flattered Northern Ireland. The Swiss midfield of Xhaka, Dzemaili and Zakaria completely controlled proceedings. I said beforehand that I thought Switzerland would target Conor McLaughlin with Stoke’s Shaqiri but clearly Vladmir Petkovic had done his homework and correctly targeted Chris Brunt on the right hand side of the pitch where they had so much joy.
At the back, experienced campaigners Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner let virtually nothing past them and Basel centre back Akanji was absolutely imperious on his second cap. It was a superbly dominant performance from a perfectly set up outfit and with a bit more luck they could have been out of sight. I think the gripe that Northern Ireland fans like myself have is not that we deserved anything more than what we got, but that the prerequisite for going to Basel with a good chance was a clean sheet and Michael’s men, however fortunately throughout the game, did enough to acquire that shut-out.
As for the Northern Ireland, being caught in two minds as to how to set up certainly didn’t help. Do they prioritize the clean sheet over everything and risk a moment of magic (or in this case, madness) tearing the game plan up? Or do you go all out to try to take a lead to Switzerland and risk leaving yourself open? Michael O’Neill and the players clearly opted for the former and as we’ve seen in recent years, Northern Ireland are at their best when fearless and positive.
Corry Evans is unfortunately out of his depth at this level, Steve Davis didn’t have his best game in a green shirt, Chris Brunt was targeted and Kyle Lafferty might as well have got an early flight to Basel for how little he troubled the two Swiss central defenders.
My issue with Lafferty isn’t so much his own performances, but that when he is on the pitch, the temptation to constantly aimlessly lump the ball up the pitch is far greater. When Conor Washington plays, Northern Ireland are forced to get the ball on the ground and play football and they look a much better side for it. As well as Washington; Jamie Ward and George Saville made a clear difference to the run on play when introduced. Ward, who was understandably benched given he has just returned from a long spell on the sidelines, added directness and Saville added some much-needed quality in possession by virtue of consistently playing at a high standard.
One of the positives that came out of the match is that there is absolutely no confusion over how Northern Ireland should approach Sunday’s match. It’s fairly simple: they have to score otherwise the dream of going to Moscow is over. The team that starts on Sunday must be far closer to the one that finished the 0-1 defeat than the one that started it. Corry Evans is suspended for the away leg and you would think that George Saville will get his first international start. With doubts over Stuart Dallas, who hobbled off after feeling the effects a horrific tackle from Fabian Schär early doors, Jamie Ward may find himself thrown back into the mix earlier than expected. Up front, there is absolutely no doubt that Conor Washington will play and add some much required pace and tenacity to the front line.
So can Northern Ireland really turn this around or are we simply kidding ourselves? One thing is for sure is that Northern Ireland have to win and their away form has been very ropey over the last few years. In this campaign alone, they took seven points from a possible 15. Three of those came with a last-minute winner in Azerbaijan where they stank the place out for the majority of the match, another three came against minnows San Marino where it took 70 minutes to make the breakthrough and the other point was in Prague where they rode their luck massively in the opening match of the campaign. It’s fair to discount the matches against the world champions from any sort of rational analysis but the most recent away performance, in Oslo, was brutal.
One thing we know from previous, however, is that Michael O’Neill isn’t arrogant or stubborn. He showed in France that he is more than happy to hold his hands up, admit that he got it wrong and change things for the better. A lot of managers try to over-complicate things and become obsessed with the fact that they know better than the average punter but often elements of football are simple and I think Michael gets that.
Similar to the Switzerland match, O’Neill understandably got the approach badly wrong in the opening match of the Euros against Poland in Nice. Northern Ireland showed the Poles far too much respect and in the end, were deservedly beaten. For the ensuing match, O’Neill stunningly made five changes to his side and altered the approach drastically. As a result of this, NI comfortably beat Ukraine 0-2 in Lyon which ended up being enough to qualify them for the knockout stages of the tournament.
Hopefully with a few changes, an alteration in approach and determination to avenge the disgraceful scenes of the first leg, Northern Ireland can get the unlikely win they need and make Sunday evening a historic night in the history of the national team. Given the immense quality and organisation of this Swiss outfit, it will take a monumental performance out there to qualify and it really would be one of the greatest nights in our history.
What I think the starting XI should be:
McGovern; McLaughlin, McAuley, J. Evans, Brunt; McNair, Davis, Saville; Dallas, Washington, Ward.
What I think the starting XI will be:
McGovern; McLaughlin, McAuley, J. Evans, Brunt; Norwood, Davis, Saville; Magennis, Washington, Dallas.
Head’s prediction: 2-0 Switzerland (3-0 on aggregate)
Heart’s prediction: 0-1 Northern Ireland (1-1 on aggregate – Northern Ireland win on penalties.)