For Northern Ireland, the route to a place at World Cup 2022 remains tricky after this draw against Switzerland. This was, as expected, a tense encounter, with chances scarce and the hosts mindful of playing in front of a noisy, near-capacity crowd for the first time in almost two years.
Ian Baraclough’s men now sit third and they generally acquitted themselves well even if invention was sorely lacking against the Swiss, whose surge to the quarter-finals of this summer’s Euros is still fresh in the memory. The new Switzerland manager Murat Yakin, who succeeded Vladimir Petkovic last month, felt confident after Sunday’s draw against the Group C leaders Italy, but his team had to work hard for a point. A first-half penalty-save by Bailey Peacock-Farrell from Haris Seferovic encapsulated the evening’s anxiety, the Swiss forward’s effort bitterly disappointing.
There were strong suggestions of this being a must-win scenario for Northern Ireland Confidence was certainly peaking in the wake of last Thursday’s 4-1 qualifying win over Lithuania in Vilnius, from a team who tend to find scoring a particular struggle. However, the encounter against Switzerland in Geneva next month will reveal all.
Switzerland, who were missing Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, the latter due to contracting Covid-19, were organised, but it was Northern Ireland who sparked in the eighth minute. The striker Shayne Lavery – one of Baraclough’s greenhorns – impressively outstripped Nico Elvedi just inside Switzerland’s half but he took a fraction too long as he homed in on goal and sliced wide.
Noticeably lifted, the hosts pressed gamely amid a rather prickly first half. Opportunities were scarce, though, with Yakin’s men unhurried and content to wait for potential openings. Yet when they were presented with a penalty on 32 minutes, following a push by Michael Smith on Ruben Vargas, Seferovic found Peacock-Farrell equal to his tame effort.
It was the Northern Ireland goalkeeper’s second successive spot-kick save, having denied Lithuania last Thursday. Switzerland looked to atone for the miss but found the hosts hardened and denying them space in front of goal before the interval.
Manuel Akanji missed by inches from a free-kick as matters cntinued to be tetchy. Regrettably for Northern Ireland their lack of genuine potency against quality sides – an ongoing issue – was obvious as the second half wore on, although they defended admirably when required to. Over-officious meddling by the referee, Harald Lechner, also unfortunately hindered the game’s flow.
In an attempt to refresh, Baraclough made a double switch on 67 minutes, Dion Charles and Conor Bradley coming on for Conor Washington and Smith, respectively. Peacock-Farrell gathered a swerving 25-yard free kick from Ricardo Rodriguez, but the sides cancelled each other out in the latter stages. Frustration, but Northern Ireland’s qualification hopes are still alive.