FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying: Switzerland scraped into next year’s World Cup, their fourth finals in a row, after being held to a goalless draw at home by a valiant and workmanlike Northern Ireland who came desperately close to forcing extra-time on Sunday.The Swiss qualified 1-0 on aggregate, the tie ultimately being decided by the hugely controversial penalty converted by Ricardo Rodriguez in the first leg in Belfast on Thursday. Northern Ireland held their own against the team ranked 11th in the world and were agonisingly close to taking the play-off to extra time when Jonny Evans’s injury-time header sailed goalwards. Yann Sommer, the Switzerland goalkeeper, was awol having missed Chris Brunt’s deep cross but Ricardo Rodríguez came to his country’s rescue with a clearance on the line. It would have to be Rodríguez, who scored the controversial penalty that ultimately decided the team heading to Russia next summer. Another cruel twist for O’Neill and his players.“The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision that means we are missing out on the chance to go to a World Cup,” the Northern Ireland manager said. “That is the cruelty. We should still be out there playing extra time.”Switzerland grew into the game and, once they had adjusted to the testing playing conditions, created numerous chances to extend their advantage. Thanks to Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping and wayward finishing, they failed and were ultimately indebted to a penalty that should never have been given for their fourth consecutive appearance at a World Cup finals.The Northern Ireland manager threw on Magennis, pushed McAuley into the attack and tried to bombard the home penalty area in the final stages. He was prepared to risk space at the back in search of that vital goal and Haris Seferovic should have capitalised but skied dreadfully over with only McGovern to beat.
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