Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill has urged his side to channel their anger after their World Cup hopes were dealt a blow by contentious refereeing decisions during their first-leg play-off defeat against Switzerland.
Switzerland were on the offensive throughout but earned a slender lead in the tie when Blackburn Rovers midfielder Corry Evans was controversially penalised for handball and Ricardo Rodriguez converted the subsequent penalty.
Evans turned his back and appeared to block Xherdan Shaqiri’s shot with his shoulder, although referee Ovidiu Hategan deemed the incident to be deliberate handball. Fabian Schar, meanwhile, could have been shown a red card for an ugly lunge on Stuart Dallas.
“It’s staggering to think the referee can award a penalty in that situation,” said O’Neill. “He is five or six yards from the incident and has nobody in his line of sight. Corry has clearly turned and his arm is not in an unnatural position.
“It’s bewildering in this day and age. It’s such a defining moment in the match and we feel very hard done by. The opening tackle by Schar was a borderline red card so the referee has done us no favours.
“But we’re still in the tie. I don’t have to pick the players up. There is anger in the dressing room and the players feel aggrieved. They still believe. There is a real motivation and an anger and we have to channel it to find the right result..”
The second leg will take place at St Jakob’s Park in Basel on Sunday as Northern Ireland bid to reach the World Cup for the first time in 32 years – they have never qualified for back-to-back tournaments in their history.
They will be without Evans in the second leg after he was cautioned for his part in the penalty, which was duly dispatched by AC Milan’s Rodriguez. For their part, Northern Ireland failed to register a shot on target.