There was a horrible sense of deja vu for Northern Ireland as a controversial refereeing decision contributed to a pivotal World Cup qualifying defeat by Switzerland.
A depleted Northern Ireland stood up to early pressure, but after Jamal Lewis was shown an extremely harsh second yellow card for taking too long over a throw-in, they cracked as goals from Steven Zuber and Christian Fassnacht sealed a 2-0 loss that all but ends hopes of reaching Qatar next year.
Northern Ireland had done their best to put to bed memories of four years ago, when Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty for a disputed handball sent Switzerland to the 2018 World Cup at their expense, but they would come flooding back for the 400 travelling fans and all those watching at home.
While this defeat does not definitively end Northern Ireland’s chances of finishing second in Group C and reaching the play-offs, with a six-point deficit to Switzerland and only three games left to play, it may as well do.
The key moment came in the 37th minute. Lewis had the ball in his hands for 17 seconds before referee Slavko Vincic decided he had had enough – though he paused after pulling the yellow card from his pocket, apparently taking a moment to realise he had already booked him for a tug on Breel Embolo.
A shocked Lewis left behind a Northern Ireland team who had already been under pressure, but who would now reach breaking point.
Ian Baraclough’s options had been stretched by seven withdrawals through illness and injury – though Paddy McNair, Stuart Dallas and George Saville returned, they replaced Ali McCann, Shayne Lavery and Michael Smith, all candidates to start had they been fit.
With Switzerland strengthened by the return of Embolo and Xherdan Shaqiri, Baraclough packed the midfield to try to cut out supply lines, but saw the hosts create a string of chances.
Denis Zakaria thought he had given them the lead with just four minutes gone, rifling a low shot through the area after Renato Steffen’s effort was charged down, but after a lengthy VAR check the strike was ruled out with Kevin Mbabu offside.
Lewis made a goal-saving tackle to deny Steffen after Embolo’s pass cut through the defence, then Peacock-Farrell and Ciaron Brown made last-ditch blocks to deny Shaqiri twice.
Things only got more difficult after Lewis saw red as Northern Ireland were pressed even further back.
The mission was to make it to half-time, but in the third minute of three added on, the Swiss struck.
Fortune was on their side once again. Craig Cathcart inadvertently sent Shaqiri’s flick into Embolo’s path. Brown looked to have cut the ball out, but as he blocked it the ball span up for Embolo to play in Zuber, who did the rest.
Northern Ireland returned with a renewed spirit after the break, but all their work was in defence as more last-ditch blocks were required to deny Embolo and Shaqiri.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) October 9, 2021
Mbabu tried to pick his spot from range in the 61st minute, but bent his shot beyond both the reach of the diving Peacock-Farrell and the far post.
The chances kept coming but so did the blocks as Northern Ireland put bodies on the line to defend Peacock-Farrell’s goal – while they were also grateful to see Embolo guilty of two glaring misses.
Just as it seemed they would make it to full-time without conceding again, Switzerland got a stoppage-time second when substitute Fassnacht was left in space to rub salt in the wounds.