Rodriguez Fires Switzerland To Controversial Windsor Win

A contentious second-half penalty from Ricardo Rodriguez was enough to give the travelling Swiss side a one-goal advantage heading into the second-leg of their World Cup Qualifying Play-Off with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park last night.

Despite being predominantly the better side over the duration of the match, the visitors, under Vladimir Petkovic, could have counted themselves fortunate for another reason, as Fabian Schar could have seen red early on.

However, Switzerland were perhaps unlucky to be in the Play-Offs in the first place after winning nine out of ten in The Group Stages, but on the night, the home side failed to pose any real threat to the Swiss goal in a game of few chances.

Michael O’Neill’s men, who finished second to Germany in Group C of Round One of European Qualifying, now have little hope of making it to a first World Cup for 31 years after a disappointing night on home turf.

From the start in Northern Ireland, O’Neill opted for just a single change from their last outing, a Qualifying defeat in Norway and it came in the attacking department as Conor Washington came in for Kyle Lafferty.

Chris Brunt, the man who had scored the own goal that ensured their defeat in Oslo, prolific forward Stuart Dallas, Southampton midfielder and Skipper Steven Davis and Jonny Evans were all among the starters.

Meanwhile, Petkovic decided on three alterations to the Xl that lost so decisively in Portugal last month, meaning that La Nati would need to play an extra fixture to try to secure a place in Russia.

There was to be one change in defence as the scorer of an own-goal on that night in Lisbon, Johan Djourou was axed in favour of Manuel Akanji, whilst Remo Freuler and Admir Mehmedi were replaced by Steven Zuber and Denis Zakaria.

On a night where it seemed like the whole of Belfast was rocking with Windsor Park, the visitors would get off to the better start, not before Schar had lunged in dangerously on Dallas though, but Referee Ovidiu Hategan only produced a yellow card.

Shortly after, a ping-ponging goalmouth scramble would eventually see the ball rolled into the path of Arsenal man Granit Xhaka, with the midfielder placing a curling effort inches over the bar.

The Swiss came close again on 17 minutes, this time managing to force a save out of Northern keeper Michael McGovern as a superb ball from talented winger Xherdan Shaqiri picked out Haris Seferovic but his bottom corner-bound toe on the ball would be dealt with well.

Early in the second period, Shaqiri, the Stoke City man, came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock himself with a wondrous effort from range that skimmed the top of the crossbar.

As did Seferovic yet again on 53 minutes with Blerim Dzemaili rolling a superb effort across the face of goal and the Benfica forward being just unable to get a decisive touch on it.

However, only minutes later, the Swiss would finally get their reward for creating more than the home Nation, albeit coming in the most controversial of circumstances.

Shaqiri, again the focal point, was found by Zuber with an excellent ball that culminated in a fierce volley that was blocked by Corry Evans and to the bemusement of pretty much everyone Irish in The Stadium, the Romanian man in the middle pointed to the penalty spot.

Left-back Rodriguez was the man to step up after plenty of protesting from the hosts, coolly sending McGovern the wrong way to cruelly instigate a vital away lead for his Nation.

Only a Josh Magennis header would threaten Petkovic’s men in terms of losing the advantage after that as the encounter disappointingly petering out with some good away defending.

Therefore, the scores stayed the same at full-time with the game’s biggest talking points being the two pivotal decisions made by Referee Hategan at the start of both halves ones that proved costly for O’Neill, who now faces a very tough task to make it to Russia 2018.

But, for the Swiss, they were quite literally walking in a Windsor Wonderland, these two Nations will meet again on Sunday evening in Basel, will Switzerland be able to hold on and secure Qualification to a fourth successive World Cup?

Man of the Match: Xherdan Shaqiri.