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Sunday 12 Nov 2017
Heroic performance is not enough to earn World Cup place

Northern Ireland produced a heroic performance tonight in Basel in the second leg of the FIFA World Cup qualifier with Switzerland but, at the end of it all, it is the Swiss who will be making their way to Russia next summer and not the massed ranks of the Green and White Army.

Michael O'Neill made four changes from Thursday's first leg in Belfast with George Saville, Conor Washington, Jamie Ward and Aaron Hughes replacing Corry Evans, Josh Magennis, Kyle Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin respectively.

And knowing nothing less than a win was required Northern Ireland started the game like a house on fire with Chris Brunt forcing a top quality save from Swiss keeper Yann Sommer inside the first three minutes.

But it soon became evident this was going to be a much more open game when, just a couple of minutes after that, Xherdan Shaqiri whipped in a cross from the right for Haris Seferović but he couldn't find the target with his close range header.

The sides continued to trade chances. Blerim Dzemaili saw a shot deflected for a corner while Brunt offered up another stinging effort with a 30-yard drive which Sommer did well to hold.

The action continued with Seferović firing into the side netting before Michael McGovern was quick to react to dive at the feet of Steven Zuber.

Stuart Dallas then might have crafted an opening on 40 minutes with a cross which Sommer had to be smart to keep out as it looked like it might creep in at the far post.

Looking to kill the tie off, Switzerland came storming out of the blocks after the break with a Zuber shot being blocked by Hughes followed swiftly by a Ricardo Rodriguez effort which went just the wrong side of the left post.

At the other end, on the counter attack, Ward delivered an excellent ball from out on the right for Washington to send a header just past the far upright.

Then, after the hour, Washington produced a superb turn to find Saville in a dangerous position but his shot was ultimately comfortably gathered by Sommer.

As the second half progressed Northern Ireland seemed to grow in stature - first to every ball, winning every tackle, looking more composed - but that opening that was so desperately sought just would not come.

The Swiss almost snatched victory on the night with two heart-stopping moments in the closing six minutes.

First, on 84, Seferović squandered a gilt-edged opportunity when firing well over from right in front of McGovern's goal before, a short time after that, substitute Admir Mehmedi was a whisker away from connecting with Breel Embolo's knockback.

With four minutes of added time left this was all or nothing for Northern Ireland, and they very nearly grabbed that precious goal in the 92nd minute only for Rodriguez, scorer of the controversial penalty that was the difference between the nations over the two games, acrobatically cleared a Jonny Evans effort off the line.

That was the chance Northern Ireland needed, that was the final chance... the dream was over.

Switzerland: Sommer, Lichsteiner, Akanji, Seferović, Xhaka, Rodriguez, Zuber, Džemaili, Zakaria, Schär, Shaqiri. Subs: Bürki (not used), Hitz (not used), Lacroix (not used), Elvedi (not used), Lang (not used), Embolo (replaced Seferović 86), Freuler (replaced Shaqiri 80), Behrami (not used), G Fernandes (not used), Mehmedi (replaced Džemaili 61), Gavranović (not used), E Fernandes (not used)

Northern Ireland: McGovern, McAuley, J Evans, Davis, Washington, Brunt, Dallas, Norwood, Hughes, Ward, Saville. Subs: Carroll (not used), Mannus (not used), McLaughlin (not used), Ferguson (not used), Hodson (not used), Jones (replaced Ward 74), Lafferty (not used), Paton (not used), Lund (not used), McNair (replaced Washington 82), Magennis (replaced Norwood 74), McArdle (not used)