Tue, Nov 14, 2017 - Page 16 News List

O’Neill bemoans penalty award

‘POOR DECISION’:Northern Ireland’s World Cup dream was ended by Switzerland, while Croatia were barely made to break sweat in a goalless draw against Greece

AFP, PARIS

Switzerland’s Breel Embolo, left, vies for the ball with Northern Ireland’s Jonny Evans in their FIFA World Cup playoff second leg in Basel, Switzerland, on Sunday.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill on Sunday bemoaned the controversial first-leg penalty that saw his side’s World Cup dream end with a 1-0 aggregate defeat by Switzerland in their playoff.

Ricardo Rodriguez’s spot-kick in Belfast on Thursday last week proved the difference between the two sides, as Switzerland held off some late pressure from unfancied Northern Ireland in the second leg in Basel in difficult conditions after heavy rain.

O’Neill said his players would still feel hard done by, after the decision by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan to award Switzerland a penalty when Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley struck Corry Evans on the shoulder from point-blank range.

“Ultimately, we’ve gone out to a poor decision in the first leg,” O’Neill told Sky Sports after the second-leg 0-0 stalemate. “If it wasn’t for the penalty we’d be playing extra-time. The players will be remembered for the performance tonight. It’s a very sore way to lose. We have to move on.”

Despite the controversy over the winning goal, which saw Evans have to apologize for his wife’s rant on Twitter in which she called the referee a “Romanian gypsy,” Switzerland were the better side over the two legs as they booked their spot at a fourth straight FIFA World Cup finals.

Vladimir Petkovic’s hosts wasted a host of chances in the first half, with striker Haris Seferovic most to blame, but did enough to get over the line as Rodriguez cleared a stoppage-time header from Jonny Evans off the line.

“Everyone said it was almost done, but against teams like that it’s a fight. I’m very excited we’ve achieved our goal,” Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer told TV channel RTS. “It’s unfortunate that we were not more efficient because it would have been easier.”

“It was a difficult match. It was very difficult to play with the pitch and our opponents,” Stoke City winger Shaqiri said. “I’m very proud that we have managed to qualify for the whole country.”

It was only the second time in the qualifying campaign that Switzerland had failed to win, after finishing second to Portugal in Group B, despite winning nine of their 10 games.

Croatia were barely made to break sweat as they eased into the World Cup finals for the fifth time with a goalless draw in Greece.

A 4-1 first-leg win in Zagreb had done the damage on Thursday last week and Greece never threatened to produce any sort of a comeback.

Croatia, who sacked coach Ante Cacic last month as they finished behind Iceland in Group I, won their final qualifier against Ukraine 2-0 under new coach Zlatko Dalic just to reach the playoffs, but the 1998 semi-finalists are now into their fifth finals from just six attempts, giving the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic the chance to make up for their group-stage exit in Brazil.

“We achieved our goal and we are going to Russia. We had a good match in Zagreb, but it was difficult here,” Dalic said. “Tonight, I am not too happy with our performance, but the important thing is that we have qualified.”

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