The 2018 World Cup Play-off between Northern Ireland and Switzerland was controversial, with one moment making the headlines in the aftermath. In the first leg held at Windsor Park, referee Ovidiu Hațegan awarded Switzerland a penalty in the 58th minute for a handball by Corry Evans. This decision however was incorrect, with the ball very clearly hitting the back of the midfielder.
This decision ultimately was the difference between the two sides with the Swiss making it to the World Cup in Brazil after the second leg ended 0-0, in a game that was dominated by Northern Ireland and included a dramatic goal line clearance to deny the Green and White Army getting back into the match.
But what if the handball never happened? Would Northern Ireland have gone on to qualify for the World Cup? How would have they got on in Russia? Well in this article, I am going to be answering those questions.
We can’t really look at the Switzerland game in full to decide whether or not Northern Ireland would have gotten on the plane to Russia as it really was a changed tempo and performance from Northern Ireland when the players were so fired up and outraged at the decision they had just seen.
Looking at the form of Northern Ireland going into the game, it was rather impressive. They confirmed a top-two finish in the group, two matches before the end of qualifying beating the Czech Republic 2-0 at home, before going on to lose 3-1 to Germany and a 1-0 defeat to Norway hours after Northern Ireland’s place in the play-offs was confirmed.
Northern Ireland won six of their ten matches with the two defeats to Germany, the final game defeat to Norway and the opening draw against the Czech Republic being the only slip-ups in a brilliant campaign under the leadership of Michael O’Neill. The side also kept an impressive seven clean sheets, with Michael McGovern going over 11 and a half hours without conceding a goal.
Switzerland were in excellent form as barring a defeat against Portugal in their previous fixture the last time they failed to win was in June 2016, when they were knocked out of the Euros against Poland.
I believe Northern Ireland would have gone on to win the fixture, as they wanted it more. The passion of the performance in the second leg was something that will never be forgotten and although I said that we couldn’t look at that fixture as a basis of my thoughts it gave me an idea of how Northern Ireland would have responded if the Swiss went ahead and they definitely had to the beating of the Swiss at home. The refereeing decision at Windsor Park really knocked the Northern Ireland players, with that being on the back of their minds for the rest of the tie.
I believe Northern Ireland would have won tie 1-0 with a goal coming in the second half against the Swiss at home. There is only one man that could score a big goal for Northern Ireland, and that man is Josh Magennis, he fired Northern Ireland to France and now he has fired them to Russia.
But who would Michael O’Neill take on the plane with him? This is what I predict he would have done.
So, here is what I believe would have been the Northern Ireland’s 23-man squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia based on the players that were most selected during the qualifying campaign and the shirt numbers are a complete guess to be honest.
So, there is what I think Michael O’Neill would have went with for his 23-man World Cup squad. In the next part of this mini-series, I will be taking a look at the World Cup itself and see how Northern Ireland might have fared in Russia.