Last time on this little mini-series, we were looking at what would have happened if Ovidiu Hațegan never awarded Switzerland a penalty against a ‘handball’ from Corry Evans in the 2018 World Cup Play-off, which ultimately cost Northern Ireland a place in Russia the following Summer. You can have a read of that article by clicking here.
I predicted that Northern Ireland would have beaten Switzerland 1-0 thanks to a goal from Josh Magennis. This was based on performances up to the match and I took very little from the actual play-off as the tie was very different after the referee made that controversial decision.
A quick reminder of the team that I believe Michael O’Neill would have selected for the World Cup in Russia. Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Alan Mannus, and Roy Carroll. Defenders: Conor McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Lee Hodson, Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes, Craig Cathcart. Midfielders: Steven Davis, Corry Evans, Matthew Lund, Oliver Norwood, Paddy McNair, George Saville. Forwards: Niall McGinn, Conor Washington, Kyle Lafferty, Stuart Dallas, Jamie Ward, Josh Magennis.
Northern Ireland would have been drawn in Group E alongside Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. It would have been a very difficult group, and nobody really knows how Northern Ireland would have done, but I will try and be as realistic as possible.
Their opening game would have been against Brazil, a game that Northern Ireland fans would have loved to see in reality. Michael O’Neill does like to switch things up tactically when playing against teams that are much better than them. I think he would have gone for a 5-3-2 formation. It would probably look like this:
Brazil were not the force that they once were and in reality, they drew their opening game against Switzerland. Despite that, I still think Brazil would have gotten past Northern Ireland to win the match 2-0. I think the occasion would have gotten to Northern Ireland, just as it did against Poland at Euro 2016. It would have been the game that Northern Ireland were expected to lose with the hope to pick up points elsewhere against Serbia and Costa Rica.
The second game of the group would have been against Serbia, with Switzerland winning 2-1. I think for this game Michael O’Neill would have played a 4-4-2 to ensure that the team remained solid throughout the pitch. The starting XI would have probably looked like this:
I think Northern Ireland would have been tired out after the game against Brazil and Serbia had a tough game against Costa Rica, so this tie would have most likely ended in a draw, even a 0-0 draw. Both teams are solid throughout the pitch but neither have the quality get in behind each other’s defence with the game being a case of possession football with limited chances for either side.
The final game of the group would have been against Costa Rica, with Switzerland drawing 2-2 against Costa Rica. For Northern Ireland, they actually played Costa Rica before the World Cup in a friendly match, with Costa Rica running out 3-0 winners. This game, however, featured a very depleted Northern Ireland side which saw Jonny Evans playing in midfield and the likes of Ryan McLaughlin and Shay McCartan play. I believe Michael O’Neill would have selected a starting XI in a 4-3-3 formation for this game, looking like this:
This would be the game that Northern Ireland probably fancied their chances in, with the Green and White Army probably ending the game as 2-0 winners, with a penalty from Steven Davis a late goal from substitute Conor Washington. The friendly game that was played has very little effect on my prediction as there were so many different factors that surrounded that game, such as the squad available and the heat etc.
If I take the results of the other games of the group as they were in Russia, the final standings for Group E would have looked like this:
As you can see Northern Ireland would have made it out of the groups on goal difference, something that is a little bit of a surprise to me, however, Switzerland made it out of the group in real life so it may have been possible.
In the Round of 16, Northern Ireland would have faced Sweden – not the worst tie for the Green and White Army. Michael O’Neill would probably fancy his chances in this tie, fielding a similar team to last time out against Costa Rica. It would have looked a little like this:
Despite the optimism from the Northern Ireland camp, this would probably have been one game too far for the Green and White Army, bowing out against Sweden in extra-time. Northern Ireland’s squad is on the older end of the scale and with their being a big leap in quality within the squad, the team would probably not have enough to last 120 minutes against a tricky, cleaver Sweden side.
If Northern Ireland had off gotten past Sweden a tie against England would have been on offer, followed by a tie against Croatia and then the final against France. The England game would have been tough game and I don’t think a repeat of 2005 would have happened, although we don’t know what would have happened if the penalty against Switzerland wasn’t given.