November 11, 2017 / 5:35 PM / 2 months ago

Northern Ireland switch focus back to game after penalty row

BASEL (Reuters) - Northern Ireland will concentrate on improving their passing and pressing when they face Switzerland in the second leg of their World Cup playoff on Sunday rather than dwelling on the controversial penalty that led to their defeat in the first match.

Switzerland brought a 1-0 win back from Belfast thanks to the penalty, awarded for handball by Corry Evans after he blocked Xherdan Shaqiri’s acrobatic volley at point-blank range, leaving them as firm favourites to progress on Sunday.

The decision incensed Northern Ireland as Evans had his back to the ball and it seemed impossible for him to get out of the way.

“There was a lot of emotion in the dressing room after the game but it’s gone now, the focus is on trying to get the result that will get us through,” Northern Ireland manager Michael O‘Neill told reporters.

“We have to do better in possession, put more pressure on Switzerland,” he added. “We didn’t press the ball as well as we could have done. The players agree with that and we know we can play better.”

Following a run of five successive wins without conceding a goal, Northern Ireland have lost their last three games but O’Neill denied they had gone off the boil just as they attempt to reach their first World Cup finals since 1986.

“I don’t think the players are short on confidence or belief,” he said. “It’s a massive achievement for us as a country to be here. We have given ourselves a difficult task but I wouldn’t say it was an insurmountable task.”

Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic looked bemused as he was repeatedly asked to comment on Thursday’s penalty.

“If it happened to us, I would accept it like a true professional,” he said. “There wouldn’t be any talking about it afterwards. We also had a decision go against us in the 85th minute of the game.”

Midfielder Granit Xhaka added: “We’re not bothered about whether it was a penalty or not. The referee blew his whistle and we deserved the win. That’s the end of the story.”

Petkovic warned his side that they could not afford to let up on Sunday.

“As soon as we lost our style and took the pressure off, they were dangerous,” said Petkovic. “We mustn’t lose concentration for even a second.”

Writing by Brian Homewood,; Editing by Neville Dalton

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