Northern Ireland’s path to Qatar 2022 remains tricky after they had to settle for a draw against Switzerland. This was, as expected, a tense affair that sharply reflected the hosts’ weaknesses in attacking areas against top-class opposition.
Northern Ireland were mindful of playing in front of a noisy, near-capacity crowd for the first time in almost two years and their industry, plus a sterling penalty save by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, could not be faulted.
Ian Baraclough’s men now sit third and acquitted themselves well even if that invention was 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, felt confident after Sunday’s draw against the Group C leaders, Italy, but his side had to settle for a point.
Peacock-Farrell’s save from Haris Seferovic’s dreadful penalty encapsulated Switzerland’s nervousness. The home support lauded their men at the end – they had defended stoutly without the experience of Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas, Paddy McNair, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and Liam Boyce.
“When you look at the players that were missing, to put in a performance against a top nation means there’s nothing to fear. We’ll go to Geneva to look for three points,” said Baraclough. “I was energised by what I saw, from the players, their enthusiasm and the crowd. It’s great that the defence know they have a keeper who is calm and in open play I didn’t feel we were in danger.”
There were strong suggestions of this being a must-win game for Northern Ireland, and confidence was high after last Thursday’s 4-1 qualifying triumph over Lithuania in Vilnius. “Maybe next time we will find a different player for a penalty. We had no surprises in our game today,” Yakin said afterwards.
Switzerland, without 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 beat Nico Elvedi just inside Switzerland’s half but took a little too long as he homed in on goal and sliced wide. It would be the hosts’ most threatening moment.
Noticeably lifted, they pressed whenever possible in a prickly, disjointed first half. Opportunities to test the Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer were few, though, with Yakin’s men unhurried.
Yet when Switzerland were presented with their penalty on 33 minutes, following a debatable 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 also denied Lithuania.
Switzerland sought to atone for their striker’s wastefulness but found Baraclough’s men hardened, the flinty defensive pair of Ciaron Brown and Daniel Ballard denying them space and openings. Manuel Akanji missed by inches with a free-kick.
Northern Ireland’s lack of incision was glaring in the second half and meddling by the referee, Harald Lechner, hindered the flow.
Ever alert, Peacock-Farrell gathered a swerving 25-yard free-kick from Ricardo Rodriguez but the sides cancelled each other out in the latter stages. It was a triumph of resilience for both.