Publication:

The Mail on Sunday - 2021-10-10

Data:

Hesitation looks fatal

World Cup 2022

By Daniel Matthews

TWENTY-THREE seconds that could prove fatal for Northern Ireland’s World Cup hopes. One decision that left Jamal Lewis and everyone in white baffled before they were eventually beaten. This trip to Switzerland was not quite must-win. But if Ian Baraclough’s side hoped to haul in Group C’s top two, avoiding defeat was surely vital. For 37 minutes, Northern Ireland made a decent fist of it. And then Lewis dithered over a throw-in, the referee showed him a second yellow and the visitors’ chances all but followed him down the tunnel. From there, it seemed only a matter of time for Switzerland. Amd it was. To their credit, Northern Ireland held on until stoppage time in each half, when they were breached first by Steven Zuber and then Christian Fassnacht. Unfortunately there are no diagrams on the group table and so no mitigating factors can mask how bleak their prospects now look: six points adrift of second with three qualifiers to play. The red card to Lewis bordered on the ridiculous. Sure, the left back could have no complaints when he tugged back Breel Embolo midway through the first half. But the second yellow left Northern Ireland seething. And no wonder. Eight minutes before the break, the visitors won a throw-in down their left. It didn’t take long for referee Slavko Vincic to decide enough was enough. Lewis was dismissed for time wasting and, just like that, the mountain in front of Northern Ireland swelled. It was particularly galling given how they recovered from the worst possible start. Barely five minutes had gone when a long ball found Kevin Mbabu down the right. From his cross, Renato Steffen’s shot was diverted to Denis Zakaria, 30 yards from goal. The midfielder hit the bouncing ball first time, arrowing it away from Bailey Peacock-Farrell and into the bottom corner. It was a brilliant strike but almost immediately Swiss celebrations were tempered. A lengthy VAR check ensued. Was Mbabu offside? Was Xherdan Shaqiri obstructing Peacock-Farrell’s view? Both were contentious calls but Northern Ireland only needed one to go their way. And so it did. Mbabu was penalised and Northern Ireland nearly made them pay immediately from the visitors’ first attack, Conor Washington raced in on goal but saw his shot saved. Switzerland found the sucker punch in first-half injury time. Embolo broke through a couple of challenges before finding Zuber, who finished coolly. Peacock-Farrell kept Irish hopes hanging by a thread, denying Zuber. But then Fassnacht made sure of the win.

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