Northern Ireland head to Switzerland with a raw sense of injustice that Jonny Evans believes can fuel the improvement required to salvage their World Cup aspirations.
Michael O’Neill said his team felt “a little bit of a victim” after the appalling penalty decision that handed Switzerland a 1-0 win in the play-off first leg at Windsor Park. Although understandably incensed by the Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan’s performance, O’Neill and his players accept they cannot afford to dwell on Thursday’s incident as they seek to overturn the deficit in Basel on Sunday.
Evans, whose younger brother, Corry, will be suspended having been booked over the penalty incident, admits Northern Ireland must channel their anger into producing a better display.
“It’s difficult,” said the West Bromwich Albion defender when asked whether he could console his brother. “What do you say in a moment like that? He didn’t do anything wrong, he’s made a great block from the shot. Most of us were just concerned that we have the second game now and are preparing for that.
“We talked about that in the changing room, about getting ourselves ready because we are still very much in the tie. Although the anger and disappointment is still brewing we have to make sure we pick ourselves up and give everything going into the second game. We’ve still got a big chance to turn it round. It’s happened early enough in the tie.
“We are still in the tie and it’s important not to get carried away. We still have the ability and character in the squad to turn it around. You look back at the Euros, we lost the opening game to Poland. We managed to come back, played unbelievable against Ukraine, so we will have to see. There’s still a lot of motivation in the squad and a big prize there for us.”
Evans accused the match official of guessing a handball offence had been committed when Xherdan Shaqiri’s volley struck Corry in the back. He added: “It’s really, really difficult to take. From all of my career, this is a decision that has really, really hurt because in a game of such magnitude for a referee to guess. You can’t really be 100% sure if something has happened and I said that to him straight away. I said: ‘Ref you have to be 100% here.’ But it was too late, he had already given the decision and it’s difficult to take.
“It’s strange because I had a feeling the referee knew he had made a wrong decision. I’m sure he was getting fed information throughout the game and he could tell by everybody’s reaction in the team that maybe he had made the wrong call.”
O’Neill has urged his players not to linger on the decision that has left Northern Ireland with a formidable task to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986. “It’s staggering in this day and age when the stakes are so high that something like that is a game changer but dwelling on it isn’t going to help us,” said the manager. “The most important thing is we use it in the right way and channel it on Sunday night.
“We have enough time to refocus and there was clearly anger on the pitch and I was a little bit concerned that with eight players on bookings, it would have been easy to get another one. We’ll go into the second leg with the strongest team we have available and I think we showed enough in the second half to believe we can get something. We have nothing to lose. We are a little bit of a victim and we have to use it in that way and we will see how the Swiss deal with it on their home territory.”
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