Windsor Park was hopping in anticipation of arguably the biggest match it has ever hosted. Michael O’Neill’s underdogs 180 minutes away from a summer of World Cup heaven.
The former Shamrock Rovers manager has done a simply amazing job with a relatively limited bunch of players. West Brom duo Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt are about as high profile as it gets.
It is fair to say even Scotland and Wales have a much superior pool of players to choose from yet they could not gain a play off spot.
Northern Ireland already stunned people by qualifying for the Euros and making the knockout stages before narrowly losing to eventual semi finalists Wales.
There was every reason to be optimistic but unfortunately, a very strong Switzerland team stood in their way and in truth, there was a huge gulf in class.
The Swiss won nine out of ten games in qualifying and considered themselves somewhat unlucky not to top their group with European Champions Portugal nicking top spot in the end.
A Switzerland side boasting talents such as Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo while possessing a good chunk of players who ply their trade in the Bundesliga provided formidable
Vladimir Petkovic’s side squandered a host of chances as they laid siege to the home side’s goal in a rainy Belfast. However, they needed some luck to find that through a questionable penalty decision.
Corry Evans blocked Shaqiri’s shot with his shoulder. A horrendous decision from the referee and left back Ricardo Rodriguez duly obliged from the spot to leave the Swiss firmly in the driving seat.
Michael O Neill’s troops can feel hard done by but it looks a bridge too far for them as the away side dominated the majority of the contest. A huge ask to turn things around in Basel on Sunday evening but under O’Neill they will not go down without a fight.
Meanwhile, Croatia can almost book their tickets to Russia after they flattened Greece 4-1 with goals from Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrei Kramaric.
Sweden and Italy lock horns on Friday night while the Republic of Ireland travel to Copenhagen to face Denmark on Saturday.