Harsh penalty hands Swiss win over Northern Ireland in playoff first leg
BELFAST (Reuters) - Switzerland made the most of a controversial penalty converted by Ricardo Rodriguez to secure a 1-0 win away to Northern Ireland in a pulsating and bruising first leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff on Thursday.
Northern Ireland were stunned just before the hour when Corry Evans turned his back to block Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri's acrobatic volley at point-blank range and Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot.
The ball appeared to hit Evans on the shoulder and, even if it did touch the top of his arm, there seemed no possibility he could have got out of its way.
Rodriguez ignored the jeering home fans and calmly sent Michael McGovern the wrong way in the 58th minute to put Switzerland in the driving seat for a place at next year's finals in Russia ahead of the return in Basel on Sunday.
Too add insult to injury, Evans was also booked and ruled out of the return through suspension.
"I'm staggered by the decision, staggered by the yellow card," said Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill. "It's such a defining moment in the match."
"The referee has no-one in his line of sight. Corry's arm isn't in an unnatural position, it's by his side. The ball hits him on the back more than anything. I thought the referee had blown for a foul or an offside. Nobody had claimed for it."
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic saw it differently. "He (Evans) touched the ball with his upper arm, it was a bit harsh but we deserved the win," he said.
The Swiss dominated the match despite having to contend with driving rain, a slippery pitch and boisterous home crowd.
The hosts played with the never-say-die approach that helped them finish second behind world champions Germany in their qualifying group but it failed to ruffle Switzerland who gave as good as they got and coped comfortably with the aerial threat.
The Swiss quickly got stuck in when Fabian Schaer was booked in the fifth minute for a wild late challenge on Stuart Dallas which O'Neill said should have been red.
They were denied an early lead when Jonny Evans threw himself in front of Blerim Dzemaili's shot and the ball broke to Granit Xhaka who curled the ball over the bar.
Xhaka missed again from a similar position minutes later after Steven Zuber pulled the ball back to him.
They came even closer when Shaqiri's deep cross found Haris Seferovic who managed to prod the ball goalwards, forcing an excellent save from McGovern.
Shaqiri curled a shot over the bar after the restart and Seferovic just failed to make contact with Dzemaili's pass across the face of goal.
After so many near misses, Switzerland were gifted a goal out of the blue with the penalty.
"We have to forget about it. I thought the players' reaction to it was very good," said O'Neill. "We are still in the tie. Maybe a referee will give us a decision in the second leg."
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern; Editing by Ken Ferris)