By Damian Dolan
It’s 31 years since Northern Ireland last graced the World Cup. A generation, and a few more, have grown up on tales of Billy Bingham’s famed sides of ’86 and ’82 and the heroics of Gerry Armstrong, Pat Jennings and Billy Hamilton etc, but Michael O’Neill’s side are now just 180 minutes away from returning to the game’s greatest stage.
Their task, though, is a challenging one against a Switzerland side which won all nine of their World Cup qualifiers before running into Portugal in their final game, when the Euro 2016 champions’ 2-0 victory saw them take top spot in Group B.
It was Switzerland’s first defeat in 16 games. Like Northern Ireland, they also reached the last 16 at Euro 2016, going out to Poland on penalties.
They also reached the same stage at the 2014 World Cup, exiting 1-0 at the hands of Argentina. Having also qualified for the World Cup finals in 2010 and 2006, they’re deservedly ranked 11th in the Fifa world rankings.
Northern Ireland are ranked 23rd. Northern Ireland are formidable at Windsor Park, though, but if ever they needed their Belfast fortress to be at its most partisan and raucous then that time is Thursday’s (9 November) 1st leg clash.
While O’Neill has spoken of the need not to concede an away goal in the first tie, with away goals playing a part, that desire will have to be balanced against the need to take a lead of some kind into the 2nd leg in Basel three days later.
Like O’Neill’s side, Switzerland are strong at home. Unbeaten on home soil in their five qualifying matches, they conceded just two goals, in a 5-2 win over Hungary.
That impressive record included inflicting a 2-0 defeat on Portugal. The sides have little recent history to provide an indicator as to how things might unfold.
They’ve met only four times in all and not competitively since 1964. There’s been one draw, one Switzerland victory with Northern Ireland winning twice. The last time the sides met brought a 0-0 draw in 2004.
100 per cent record
While the Republic of Ireland are contesting their eighth play-off, this is the first time Northern Ireland have found themselves in this position. Switzerland, in contrast, have a 100 per cent record in play-offs.
Talismanic Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis, who was ever-present in Ireland’s midfield during qualifying, recently received his MBE at Buckingham Palace.
Thursday’s 1st leg will be his 100th appearance for his country, a landmark which the Windsor Park faithful will no doubt want to acknowledge and will only add to the occasion in Belfast.
“Steven epitomises everything you want in a captain,” said O’Neill of his captain. “He takes responsibility on the pitch, he drives the team forward. In my opinion he’s one of the most underrated players in the Premier League.”
Davis’s battle with Xherdan Shaqiri in the middle of the pitch could be key. A veteran of Switzerland’s 2010 and 2014 World Cup campaigns, despite being only 26, he won the Champions League and Bundesliga, with Bayern Munich, as well as league titles with Swiss side Basel. Shaqiri is the Swiss player most capable of conjuring up a moment of magic.
“He’s a fantastic footballer,” said Stoke City team-mate Darren Fletcher. “You can talk about his strength and his size, but the biggest thing is that his first touch is fantastic.”
Also ever-present for Northern Ireland during qualifying was striker Kyle Lafferty, who found the net three times to take his tally for his country to 20 in 66 appearances.
Crucial to Ireland reaching Euro 2016, when he came of age on the international scene by scoring seven goals on the road to France, Northern Ireland will again look to him to lead the line.
Windsor Park has seen some great nights in the past. Thursday could see another.