Football

Northern Ireland blast penalty decision

Coach O'Neill says he's never seen a worse call after Swiss win via controversial spot-kick

Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill said he was "staggered and bewildered" by a controversial penalty decision which gave Switzerland a 1-0 win in their World Cup play-off first leg yesterday morning (Singapore time).

Vladimir Petkovic's Switzerland team dominated the match at a rain-swept Belfast but squandered a series of chances.

The key moment came near the hour mark, when Xherdan Shaqiri's volley was blocked by Corry Evans in the box and the Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot, even though the shot appeared to hit the player's shoulder.

Ricardo Rodriguez made no mistake from the penalty spot, sending goalkeeper Michael McGovern the wrong way as the visitors finally made their superiority count to put them in the driver's seat in the two-legged tie.

Asked if he had seen a worse refereeing decision, O'Neill replied: "Well, certainly not in any of the games that I have been involved in, particularly at this level, no."

"The referee has no-one in his line of sight," added O'Neill, who must now rally his team for Monday morning's second leg in Basel.

"Corry's arm isn't in an unnatural position, it's by his side. The ball hits him on the back more than anything.

"I thought the referee had blown for a foul or an offside. Nobody had claimed for it.

"I'm staggered by the decision, staggered by the yellow card but there's nothing we can do about it now.

"There's anger in the dressing room. They feel very aggrieved about what's happened."

Evans was livid with the referee's decision, and his fury was made worse by the fact that he picked up a booking which ruled him out of the second leg.

He told the BBC of the incident: "It was disgraceful. I clearly didn't put my hand up and I know that it hit me on the back of the shoulder.

"I'm absolutely gutted - he booked me as well which means I am out of the second leg which is devastating as well.

"These things happen and you just have to get on with it.

"I'm absolutely devastated about the decision but the game is more important in Basel now and I'll be out there supporting them and helping them out."

Switzerland midfielder Shaqiri, whose shot resulted in the penalty, was unsure if it was the right call by the official either.

He said: "I was surprised also that the referee gave a penalty.

"I don't know what happens in this situation, I try to shoot and someone blocks my shot. I will need to see it again.

"But the referee gives the penalty and this is football."

O'Neill hopes that the injustice will fuel his troops for the return fixture.

However, it will be a stern test of his motivational skills.

The Swiss had enjoyed a superb qualifying campaign in Group B, winning their first nine games before losing their final group match - and top spot - to Portugal.

They have also lost just two games at St Jakob's Park in their last 17 games there.

Said O'Neill: "We are still in the tie. We are going to have to find a way to get a goal back.

"I'll have to pick the players up... They still believe they are in the tie, that's the most important thing.

"It is not like we are going there with nothing to play for." - WIRE SERVICES

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