World Cup qualifying: Heartbreak as Northern Ireland pay price for a cruel penalty against Swiss

Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas has a shot on goal during the FIFA World Cup Qualifying second leg match at St Jakob Park, Basel. PIC: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas has a shot on goal during the FIFA World Cup Qualifying second leg match at St Jakob Park, Basel. PIC: Nick Potts/PA Wire
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Northern Ireland saw their World Cup dream die in Basel on Sunday evening, though it was a controversial penalty three days earlier that ultimately sent Switzerland through to Russia.

The Green and White Army will spend years seething over Ovidiu Hategan’s decision to give a spot-kick for a handball against Corry Evans at Windsor Park, with the Northern Irish unable to overcome the deficit in a 0-0 draw at St Jakob-Park.

Switzerland's Fabian Schar (left) slides in to challenge Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas during the FIFA World Cup Qualifying second leg match at St Jakob Park, Basel. PIC: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Switzerland's Fabian Schar (left) slides in to challenge Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas during the FIFA World Cup Qualifying second leg match at St Jakob Park, Basel. PIC: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Michael O’Neill’s side went down fighting, with the type of spirit that has typified his tenure - which may now come to an end given the work he has done in taking his small country to the brink of a first World Cup in 32 years.

It might have continued had Jonny Evans’ stoppage-time header not been cleared off the line, fittingly, by Ricardo Rodriguez, the man who converted from 12 yards in Belfast to send Switzerland to their fourth straight World Cup.

O’Neill’s bold team selection, which featured four changes and Leeds United winger Stuart Dallas despite an injury concern, was reminiscent of the way he shuffled his pack against Ukraine at Euro 2016 when Northern Ireland were facing elimination after a poor performance against Poland. And, as on that occasion, there was a vast improvement.

After the game, O’Neill refused to discuss his future as manager. He said: “I’ve not even given it any thought. I don’t think it’s a reasonable question at this time. My focus is with the players and the boys in the dressing room.

“They couldn’t have given any more; what they gave for me, what they gave each other, what they gave for the country was phenomenal.

“I thought the performance was magnificent but ultimately we’ve gone out to a really poor decision in the first leg. I thought our performance was fabulous, our reaction to what happened on Thursday night was fabulous.”

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