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Sunday 12 Nov 2017
World Cup dream is still alive for Michael O’Neill’s men

Northern Ireland will have to treat the second leg of their World Cup play-off against Switzerland like a cup final.

The prize on offer in Basel – a place in next year’s World Cup finals in Russia – is massive for Michael O’Neill’s men.

They may be a goal down from the first leg but they know an early strike in Switzerland this evening (5.00 start GMT) would put them right back into it and change the equilibrium of the tie.

There’s no doubt Michael O’Neill’s men have a mountain to climb in the Alpine country but team captain Steven Davis believes they are far from out of it. 

He admitted both himself and his team-mates underperformed in Belfast on Thursday when they were undone by a controversial penalty.

However, he reckons a much improved performance on Swiss soil could help them to achieve their dream of playing at a World Cup finals. They need to treat the game like a cup final and give it their all. And the players know if they score first - and they have to score in the match to have any chance of progression - then the pressure will mount on the home side. 

Michael O’Neill will be without Corry Evans this evening as his booking in the controversial penalty incident means he is suspended.

That could pave the way for George Saville to play from the start for the first time. The midfielder looked assured and lively when he entered the fray in the first leg.

Stuart Dallas looks doubtful for the game after a rash challenge by Swiss defender Fabian Schar on Thursday left him with a badly bruised foot.

Jamie Ward, who replaced him during the first leg, could well replace him. He also energised the team when he joined the action. 

Kyle Lafferty was well marshalled by the Swiss defence in Belfast and the manager may switch Josh Magennis into the lone striker role instead.

There’s also a case for Conor Washington to start up front. He looked hungry and up for the fight when he replaced Lafferty at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park with 12 minutes left on the clock. 

Michael O’Neill may also have a few other changes up his sleeve. After Northern Ireland lost to Poland in their first game at Euro 2016 he surprised everyone with a handful of changes against Ukraine. It just might happen again as Northern Ireland chase their World Cup dream.

The Swiss, meanwhile, are expected to be largely unchanged from the first leg, although they will definitely be without Blerim Dzemaili, who is injured. He is due to be replaced by Admir Mehmedi, who came on as a sub on Thursday. 

As they showed in Belfast, where they were the much better team on the night, Switzerland like to counter-attack and are extremely dangerous in the attacking third.

Granit Xhaka, Steven Zuber and Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been cheekily urging Swiss fans to “come and join the celebration party” this evening, will need to be closely marshalled and denied space.

And if the boys in green can also nullify the runs of experienced attacking full backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriquez, cutting off the supply route to the impressive Haris Seferovic up front, then Northern Ireland would be in a position to cause an upset. 

It is a tall order but Steven Davis and his team-mates believe they can do it. And a peak performance could ensure the bigger dream is realised.