- Northern Ireland lost first-leg play-off against Switzerland
- Travel to Basel for second-leg where they face an uphill battle
- Michael McGovern: "We've enjoyed being the underdog in the past"
After suffering a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ play-off, Northern Ireland must record a victory over Switzerland in Basel today to stand a chance of booking a berth at the global finals.
A formidable task lies ahead. Vladimir Petkovic’s Switzerland boast a 100 per cent record on home soil in the current World Cup preliminaries and are yet to taste defeat in a competitive home game since September 2014.
The underdog tag, however, is one that Michael O’Neill’s men are used to – and one they embrace. A country with a modest 1.8m population, Northern Ireland became the first fifth seed in UEFA EURO qualifying history to top their group, reaching France 2016 before going on to the tournament’s knockout stages against the odds. Knowing they can take scalps against bigger opponents, O’Neill’s men are not giving up on their quest to reach Russia 2018.
"The way we have to look at it is that it’s a challenge," said goalkeeper Michael McGovern. "Switzerland were favourites [on Thursday] and they’ll be even bigger favourites on Sunday but we’ve enjoyed being the underdog in the past. It’s something we look forward to and we’re looking forward to the game on Sunday because we’re still in the tie."
"They came [to Belfast] and won 1-0,” said right-back Conor McLaughlin. “We’ve seen stranger things happen. We have faith in our team. We know we can go there and do it.
"We have nothing to lose now,” McLaughlin continued. “We have to go and try and win the game. We’ll be leaving it all out there."
Northern Ireland entered the pitch to a rousing atmosphere in the first leg of their play-off against La Nati. The fervent home support, creating an exceptional display with each fan flying a complimentary green or silver flag, were dreaming of seeing their side at the global finals for the first time since Mexico 1986.
The hosts, however, tasted just their second competitive defeat at Windsor Park in the last four years, Ricardo Rodriguez’s second-half penalty giving the Swiss a tenth victory on the road to Russia.
"After they scored, I thought we kept our heads well," McGovern said. "I thought it would have been easy to lose our discipline. Defensively, we didn’t concede any other chances which is important as I think if Switzerland would have scored a second goal, it would be a very tough task to get back in it being 2-0 down."
"Switzerland are a good team, they’re eleventh in the world," said McLaughlin. "We knew what we were up against. But we know we can play better, that’s why it’s disappointing."
Despite the home loss, O’Neill’s men can take inspiration from notable away scalps against the likes of Hungary and Greece in their EURO qualifying campaign, as well as a last-minute winner against an in-form Azerbaijan side in the Russia 2018 preliminaries.
"The manager doesn’t need to remind us [about those games], we talk about it ourselves," said McLaughlin. "We know we’re capable of going away from home and getting big results. We need to take confidence from past results."
Whatever happens in Basel, it’s been an extraordinary journey for Northern Ireland, who in five years rose from their lowest placing of 129th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to their maiden European Championship and the cusp of Russia 2018.
With their never-say-die attitude, O'Neill's side cannot be counted out.