Switzerland close the gap on Italy by beating Northern Ireland 2-0

GENEVA (AP) – With group leader Italy absent from the Nations League, Switzerland took control of second place in their World Cup qualifying section after beating Northern Ireland 2 -0 Saturday.

Goals from Steven Zuber and substitute Christian Fassnacht came in stoppage time at the end of each half, and both came after the Irish were reduced to 10 men.

Both goals came on quick blocks thanks to an overwhelmed Irish defense, but were a poor reward for Switzerland’s 25 attempts, including seven on target, in a European Group C where Italy’s greater goal difference could still be decisive.

Northern Ireland were understaffed in the 37th minute when defender Jamal Lewis received a second yellow card from Slovenian referee Slavko Vinčić for taking too long to make a throw-in.

Coach Ian Baraclough said he was annoyed by a yellow card given for wasting time without warning, which is usual for a referee in such incidents.

“We were on the wrong side of a very, very bad decision,” said Baraclough. “It changed the complexion of the game.”

This victory gave the Swiss a six point lead over the Irish in second place with three laps remaining.

Switzerland are three points behind Italy and can level Tuesday with a win over last-ranked Lithuania, who got their first points by beating Bulgaria 3-1 on Saturday.

Italy host the Nations League finals – facing Belgium in a third-place game on Sunday – and return to World Cup action against the Swiss next month.

Group C is expected to be shaped by this November 12 match in Rome. Italy have a goal difference of six better than Switzerland and a victory in their clash could almost seal European championship spot at the World Cup in Qatar.

Only the group winners qualify directly for Qatar, and the runners-up compete in a 12-team playoff in March where three places in the final tournament are offered.

If goal difference becomes the key, the Swiss could reflect on the many missed opportunities on Saturday and a previous 1-0 home victory over Lithuania. Italy won 5-0 when they hosted Lithuania.

Switzerland and Northern Ireland drew 0-0 last month in Belfast and their four World Cup qualifying games in the past four years have produced just three goals, all for the Swiss.

Switzerland thought they were leading in the fourth minute when Denis Zakaria fired a first shot 25 meters lower into the corner of the net.

After a one-minute and 45-second video review by the Slovenian match officials, the goal was disallowed for offside. It was either for Xherdan Shaqiri blocking the view of goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell or for a marginal appeal against full-back Kevin Mbabu receiving a long pass from the defense to start the attack.

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