N. Ireland fumes over iffy penalty

The Associated Press

Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodriguez, left, scores from the penalty spot past Northern Ireland keeper Michael McGovern during their World Cup qualifying playoff first leg in Belfast on Thursday.

The Associated PressBELFAST (AP) — Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans thinks the contentious penalty awarded for a handball during his team’s 1-0 loss in a World Cup qualifying playoff first leg to Switzerland on Thursday was “a worse decision” than the Thierry Henry handball which deprived neighboring Ireland a spot at the 2010 World Cup.

A volley by Xherdan Shaqiri struck the shoulder of Evans’ brother Corey as the Northern Ireland midfielder attempted to block the shot. Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot, sparking angry protests from the Northern Ireland players.

Ricardo Rodriguez duly converted in the 58th minute for an away goal that put Switzerland in good position going into the return leg of qualifying for its fourth consecutive World Cup.

In 2009, striker Thierry Henry’s infamous and deliberate handball set up the goal that sent France to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of Ireland.

Evans thinks the call in Belfast was worse.

“It’s a worse decision because the referee has actually made a call,” Evans said. “It’s different if he didn’t see it, [but] he’s claiming that he did see something that didn’t happen, and that’s the hardest bit to take.

“It’s strange because I had a feeling the referee knew that he had made a wrong decision and I’m sure he was getting feed information throughout the game and he could tell with everybody else’s reaction that maybe he had made the wrong call.”

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill bemoaned the lack of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology in the World Cup playoff series.

“It’s just staggering in this day and age when the stakes are so high at this level of the game that something like that is a game-changer,” O’Neill said. “I spent three hours in a conference the other week at FIFA on Video Assistant Refereeing and certainly when you see what happened tonight you would certainly be an advocate of it.”

VAR is still at the experimental stage and is currently being used in the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A among other leagues around the world. It will be seen at the World Cup finals, but that was no consolation for O’Neill’s team on Thursday.

“It should be used for anything which is a defining decision in the game, which is clearly what we saw tonight,” O’Neill said.

“A penalty in those circumstances and if you are going to give it, VAR clearly would have cleared that up and said it’s clearly not a penalty.”

Swiss manager Vladimir Petkovic said the penalty decision shouldn’t overshadow the performance of his team.

“After all we deserved to win,” he said. “We should have scored more, [but] sadly we missed.”

Croatia takes big step forward

ZAGREB (AP) — Croatia took a decisive step toward World Cup qualification on Thursday, overwhelming Greece for a 4-1 victory in the first leg of their playoff.

Captain Luka Modric, whose recent form for Real Madrid had been criticized in Spain, opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 13th minute. Nikola Kalinic added another goal six minutes later.


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