Switzerland are going to the World Cup after left-back Ricardo Rodriguez denied Northern Ireland hope in both games of their playoff at either end of the field. In each leg of Switzerland’s 1-0 aggregate win, the key incident involved one of Northern Ireland’s Evans brothers.
Switzerland needed only a draw Sunday to advance to Russia, and a tense 0-0 result in rain-soaked Basel was preserved by Rodriguez’s goal-line clearance in stoppage time from Jonny Evans’ header.
“In the right moment he was in the right place,” Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic said of the AC Milan defender.
It meant Switzerland’s disputed penalty for handball in the first-leg victory in Belfast made all the difference. Rodriguez scored that spot kick on Thursday, when Corey Evans was whistled harshly for an incident that few agreed with.
Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill said his team’s exit after a spirited second-half Sunday was “a devastating moment.”
“It was decided by a really poor decision and a penalty that should never have been,” O’Neill said, 25 minutes after the final whistle. “We should still be playing extra time now.”
“It was a privilege to be their coach and manager tonight,” said O’Neill, who shared tearful embraces with players at the final whistle.
Northern Ireland came to Basel with aggression in its play that had been strangely lacking in the home leg. Still, Switzerland dominated much of the first half and should have sealed its place at a fourth straight World Cup much earlier.
Center forward Haris Seferovic was most at fault, failing to hit the target with two first-half headed chances and a late shot lofted high over the goal.
Though Petkovic declined to criticize the Benfica forward, who was booed by some fans when substituted, the coach acknowledged a regular weakness of his 11th-ranked team.
“We have to be more clinical in front of goal,” Petkovic said through a translator. “We had to suffer to the end, especially with this chance Northern Ireland had.”
In the first of four stoppage-time minutes, Evans rose at the far post to meet a cross that goalkeeper Yann Sommer misjudged to leave himself stranded.
Rodriguez moved across the goalmouth toward the post and hooked the ball clear as he fell backward into the goal.
With their spot in Russia secured, the Swiss enter the pot of second-seeded teams for the World Cup draw on December 1 in Moscow.
Now the challenge for arguably its most talented team in decades is to go beyond the last 16 at a major tournament.
In the past five years, the Swiss impressed in qualifying but failed to beat the best teams they faced – France twice, Argentina and Poland – at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship.
“We don’t really set limits for us. It could be even to the final,” said Petkovic, who should have his best players at their peak in Russia.
At 26, Xherdan Shaqiri is heading to his third World Cup, while Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka and Rodriguez are both 25 and have matured as standouts from the 2009 Under-17 World Cup-winning team.
All three now have at least 50 international appearances. None had been born the last time Northern Ireland played at a World Cup, in 1986.