Northern Ireland’s hopes of making the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 ended with Switzerland winning the play-off 1-0 on aggregate after Sunday’s stalemate in Basel.
The tie was decided by Ricardo Rodriguez’s controversial penalty in Belfast but both sides wasted chances to score on a soggy St Jakob Park surface.
Michael O’Neill’s team failed to register a shot on target at Windsor Park but Chris Brunt went close with two shots saved, while Rodriguez cleared Jonny Evans’ header off the line in injury time.
Striker Haris Seferovic squandered four good opportunities for the Swiss, who go through to the finals for an 11th time.
Michael McGovern also made a string a excellent saves for Northern Ireland on a heavy pitch, which passed an inspection following a severe thunderstorm.
It was deep into injury time when Evans rose at the backpost to send a header towards the Swiss goal, only for the perfectly placed Rodriguez to deny Northern Ireland a chance to take it to extra-time.
AC Milan defender Rodriguez was also a pivotal figure in the the first leg, with the decision to award his spot-kick, for a Corry Evans handball, angering the Belfast hosts.
O’Neill wanted his players to channel their frustration into a powerful response in the second leg and he got his wish with an energetic and determined performance.
Yann Sommer kept out two trademark Brunt fizzers in the first half while Conor Washington flashed a header wide as the threat from Northern Ireland increased after the break.
Seferovic endured a miserable 90 minutes in front of goal with the striker missing the target with all of his clear chances.
However, it is Northern Ireland who will look back on the play-off with regret after failing the find the net in two games.
Michael O’Neill missed out on taking his team to back-to-back major tournaments and it could be a double blow for Northern Ireland fans if the manager decides to move on.
The 48-year-old signed a four-year contract in 2016 but O’Neill may believe the time is opportune to take up a job elsewhere after missing out on the World Cup in Russia.
O’Neill has been linked with the vacant Scotland and Sunderland posts and no doubt offers will come his way with his stock remaining high.
It could also have been a final Northern Ireland bow for a few players, including veteran defenders Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley.
Hughes made his 109th international appearance in Basel, making him the most capped defender from the home nations.
Man of the match (Michael McGovern – Northern Ireland)
McGovern performed heroics in the Euro 2016 defeat by Germany and the Norwich keeper was again in top form to deny Switzerland.
He blocked Steven Zuber’s fierce strike with his legs early in the game and finished by keeping out an angled drive from Breel Embolo.
O’Neill made four changes from the first leg and switched to a back three with Hughes, McAuley and Evans providing a solid shield for McGovern.
The new strike-force of Jamie Ward and Washington also impressed although that vital goal eluded Northern Ireland.