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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

With a tie to chase Northern Ireland's road to Russia could end rather nearer the Alps

Stuart Dallas an injury doubt and Corry Evans suspended for World Cup play-off return leg in Switzerland on Sunday

Winger Stuart Dallas, left, is an injury doubt for Northern Ireland's World Cup play-off return leg against Switzerland on Sunday. Charles McQuillan / Getty Images
Winger Stuart Dallas, left, is an injury doubt for Northern Ireland's World Cup play-off return leg against Switzerland on Sunday. Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

The cliché is that luck evens itself out over a season. Even if that is true, it probably does not in knockout ties, and especially to teams who feel doubly wronged as they look to reach a World Cup for the first time in three decades.

Northern Ireland have to channel twin senses of injustice in Basel on Sunday. Thursday’s first 1-0 defeat to Switzerland produced several conclusions. One is that, fashionable as Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and beautiful as the Ulster coast are, the Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan should not consider Northern Ireland as a holiday destination any time soon.

His decision not to dismiss Fabian Schar for a reckless lunge at Stuart Dallas rankled and just because the Leeds United winger is a doubt for the second leg, while the Swiss defender is eligible. The tie would have had a different complexion had Vladimir Petkovic’s team played for 85 minutes with 10 men.

Instead, the teams are divided by Ricardo Rodriguez’s spot kick, awarded for a supposed handball when Xherdan Shaqiri’s shot hit Corry Evans’ back. “A clear penalty,” joked one of Switzerland’s more famous fans, tennis player Roger Federer. Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill described it as “staggering” and “bewildering.”

To compound his irritation, Evans was booked and is now banned for the second leg. The Blackburn Rovers midfielder called Hategan’s decision "disgraceful". But the question of how Northern Ireland respond was highlighted when Evans had to issue an apology after his wife, in a xenophobic social media post, branded the referee a “gypsy”. Lisa Evans returned to Twitter to say sorry, but the moral high ground may have been surrendered.

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Now Northern Ireland require the right sort of response. “We were a little bit of a victim,” said O’Neill. “We have to deal with the decision and use it as a motivation.” But they face an uphill task in a mountainous country. Switzerland won all five home qualifiers, keeping four clean sheets. Their victims included the Euro 2016 champions Portugal. They have not lost a home competitive game for three years.

Northern Ireland may have to bring in George Saville, who is yet to start an international, for Evans. Jamie Ward, who added spark in a cameo on Thursday but is yet to begin a game in an injury-hit season, could replace Dallas. O’Neill might try the energetic Conor Washington for Kyle Lafferty in attack.

But the problem is that Northern Ireland are not suited to chasing a game or, by extension, a tie. Their record of keeping clean sheets has meant they have rarely had to. But they had only 36 per cent of possession with a 63 per cent pass completion rate in Belfast. They may see too little of the ball and use it too poorly to trouble a technically-fine Swiss side.

“We can play a lot better,” said goalkeeper Michael McGovern. “We'll be unfancied on Sunday.” That is certainly true. They have prospered in such circumstances before, but never against a side of Switzerland’s consistency. The road to Russia could end rather nearer the Alps.

It might be the end of the line for this team, too. Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes will be 40 when Euro 2020 starts, Steven Davis and Chris Brunt 35. The next generation offers less promise. O’Neill, a former Hibernian and Dundee United player who lives in Edinburgh, has plenty of admirers in Scotland, who are looking for a manager with similarly catalytic qualities.

If Hategan’s decisions linger in Northern Irish minds on Sunday, they have the potential to do so for decades to come. Their World Cup exile could stretch well into the future, unless Northern Ireland turn injustice into the improbable.