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Northern Ireland dream likely to be ended

World Cup playoff second leg
Sky Sports Football, 5pm Sunday


Switzerland needed a couple of dubious refereeing decisions to help them secure a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland at Windsor Park on Thursday but they should not have to rely on good fortune in the second leg in Basel, where they look rock-solid odds-on favourites.

There was no question that the Swiss were the better side in Belfast. They looked a confident, well-coached team and the only thing missing was composure in front of goal.

They lack a top-class goalscorer but key attacker Xherdan Shaqiri was a constant threat in the first leg and almost scored a superb goal when curling a left-foot shot just over Michael McGovern's crossbar.

Shaqiri has had problems with injuries throughout his career but is the top scorer in the Swiss squad with 20 goals from 67 matches.

He seems to enjoy playing on the big stage and looks a value bet to get the party started by scoring the opening goal.

The Swiss certainly looked a class above for most of the first leg and went close on several occasions while goalkeeper Yann Sommer had a comfortable night. But the outcome might have been different had arbiter Ovidiu Hategan decided that Fabian's Schar's wild fifth-minute challenge on Stuart Dallas was worthy of a red card rather than a yellow.

Playing against ten men for most of the game would have given Northern Ireland a huge advantage and their sense of injustice only increased in the second half when Hategan awarded a harsh penalty against them after Xherdan Shaqiri's volley had struck defender Corry Evans on the upper arm.

Northern Ireland were understandably aggrieved at the final whistle but on the balance of play they were probably fortunate to lose by a single goal.They failed to register a shot on target and their long-ball tactics were easily dealt with by a physically powerful Swiss defence.

It was always going to be tough for Northern Ireland to match Switzerland over two matches and losing the first leg has put them in a very difficult position.

Michael O'Neill has proved himself to be an excellent coach and has got his players to over-perform in recent years, leading them to the last 16 at Euro 2016 and to second place in their World Cup qualifying group.

But there are limits to what he can achieve with the players at his disposal and it is revealing that Northern Ireland have not won any of their last 21 matches against teams placed in the current top 25 in Fifa rankings.

Northern Ireland's strength is to defend diligently and rely on set-pieces but they are going to have to push forward at some stage and a change of approach could leave them horribly exposed against opponents with far greater technical ability.

Since Switzerland lost out to Poland on penalties in the round of 16 at Euro 2016, they have won ten of their last 11 competitive games.

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