Granit Xhaka has told Northern Ireland to stop moaning about the controversial penalty that handed Switzerland the advantage in their World Cup play-off and insisted his country will confirm their superiority in Sunday’s second leg.
The Switzerland and Arsenal midfielder is clearly irritated his team’s strong first-leg display has been overshadowed by the spot-kick that decided the outcome. The referee Ovidiu Hategan awarded a penalty, scored by Ricardo Rodríguez, for deliberate handball by Corry Evans when Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley struck the now-suspended midfielder on the back. Xhaka claimed the controversy should not distract from his side’s dominance in Belfast but risked adding to Northern Ireland’s motivation for the return by insisting the penalty can be rendered insignificant by a commanding home display in Basel.
“I don’t know why it is such a big topic or why there is such a big discussion around it,” said Xhaka. “I think we should leave it. It was the decision of the referee and not of interest to us. We were the better team and we want to show that again tomorrow and qualify for Russia. We are a good team. We are maybe the better team compared to Northern Ireland and tomorrow, with all the support that we will have behind us, we want to make them proud and qualify for the World Cup.”
The Arsenal player’s thoughts were echoed by the coach Vladimir Petkovic, who argued the Romanian official was “good in general” despite adding to Northern Ireland’s grievance by failing to dismiss the Switzerland defender Fabian Schär for a poor challenge on Stuart Dallas, who is doubtful for the second leg with an ankle injury sustained in the fifth-minute foul. Blerim Dzemaili is sidelined for Switzerland, who have not lost a competitive home game since 2014, while Fabian Frei has left the squad due to a family bereavement.
Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, believes the manner of Thursday’s defeat will serve as motivation for the second leg but will not divert their focus. He said: “It is not an insurmountable task, but a difficult one. I know the players will give their all. In terms of the magnitude of the game this is what international football is all about. It is why I want to manage at this level and why the players play at this level. We have to make sure we’re better for the experience of being here. Our focus is on a good performance, we’ll live with the result after that.
“We have to be better in possession than we were in Belfast. We have to put more pressure on Switzerland than we did. We didn’t press the ball as well as we could have done. The players watched the game again last night and agreed they can play better.”
The German referee Felix Brych, who took charge of last season’s Champions League final, will officiate in Basel. But O’Neill said a match official from one of Europe’s leading leagues, as opposed to Romania, was the least of his concerns with less than 72 hours to prepare his players for one of the most important games in their lives.
He said: “To be honest I don’t look too much at the referee because I have no choice in what happens. It’s of no concern to me. He is a very experienced referee and has great experience in games of this size. As a coach you’ve enough to worry about in the time you have to prepare. My focus is on getting the team right. I said to the players on Friday that what happened is gone. It’s not something we dwell on and our focus is on what lies ahead, not the officials.”
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Zakaria, Xhaka; Mehmedi, Shaqiri, Zuber; Seferovic. Subs from: Bürki, Hitz, Lacroix, Elvedi, Lang, Embolo, Freuler, E Fernandes, G Fernandes, Behrami, Gavranovic. Injured: Dzemaili Absent: Frei (family bereavement)
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): McGovern; McLaughlin, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt; Magennis, Norwood, Davis, Saville, Ward; K Lafferty. Subs from: Mannus, Ferguson, Hodson, Jones, Washington, Lund, McNair, Hughes, Dallas, McArdle, Carroll.
Referee Felix Brych (Ger)
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