Northern Ireland’s hopes of making the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 ended as Switzerland won their play-off 1-0 on aggregate after Sunday’s stalemate in Basel.
The tie was decided by Ricardo Rodriguez’s controversial penalty in Belfast as Michael O’Neill’s team failed in their bid to reach back-to-back major tournaments for the first time.
Northern Ireland came within inches of forcing extra time in injury time at the end of the tie, only for West Brom defender Jonny Evans to see his header hacked off the line by Rodriguez.
Both sides wasted chances to score in a nervy contest at a rain-soaked St Jakob-Park, with Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic particularly guilty following a string of missed attempts.
O’Neill’s team failed to register a shot on target at Windsor Park in the first leg, but this was a far more adventurous display and, after several near misses from Chris Brunt in the first half, they were almost rewarded late on – only for Evans to be denied.
The result secures Switzerland a place in Russia – their fourth consecutive World Cup – and means Northern Ireland’s hopes of a fourth finals appearance are over.
Northern Ireland’s increased attacking intent in Basel came from their need to score to cancel out the Rodriguez penalty in the first leg, given for handball by Corry Evans when the ball clearly struck the midfielder on the back.
That decision angered O’Neill and his players and the manager asked them to channel that ill-feeling to ensure it was not a moment they lived to regret.
They did that with an energetic and determined performance.
But against a Swiss side who had only lost at St Jakob-Park to England in 17 matches spanning 16 years, they were always up against it and, in truth, might have been out of the tie much earlier had Seferovic been more composed in front of goal.