SIX days of World Cup play-offs begin today with matches from Belfast to Wellington to decide six spots in Russia next summer.
It’s 180 minutes of football that means everything. For the winners, there is glory, anticipation and excitement. For the losers, there is nothing.
Northern Ireland v Switzerland, Tonight: Belfast (7.45pm), Sunday: Basel (5pm)
NORTHERN IRELAND enjoyed an outstanding group campaign to comfortably finish in second spot behind Germany in Group C. This was always their aim given the almost impossible task of finishing ahead of the Germans. It is 32 years since the Northern Irish were last at the World Cup and they may never have a better chance of reaching the finals. Michael O’Neill’s team have no real superstars, but rely on togetherness and an excellent defensive record marshalled by West Brom pair Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. O’Neill has already stated that his team cannot win a high-scoring play-off, so expect two tight games. A narrow win tonight without conceding a goal would be the perfect platform.
Switzerland fell into the play-offs after defeat in their final group game to Portugal, so they must quickly shed any negative feelings. They have become consistent performers having reached the last three World Cups and will rely on Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke to provide the quality to get over the line. Coming away relatively unscathed from the Windsor Park cauldron tonight will be key for them.
Croatia v Greece, Tonight: Zagreb (7.45pm), Sunday: Piraeus (7.45pm)
NO country has had quite such a rollercoaster to reach the play-offs as Croatia. Seemingly on course for automatic qualification, they then lost in Iceland and Turkey and drew at home to Finland, so sacked coach Ante Cacic. Zlatko Dalic was parachuted in and oversaw a 2-0 win in Ukraine that guaranteed this play-off spot. But a quick look at the personnel at their disposal – Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Manzukic, Ivan Perisic – shows why they are big favourites to progress.
Greece have become renowned for their defensive qualities since their shock triumph at Euro 2004 and they will need all of those over two legs to subdue the Croatians. They have recovered from their disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and are back in the play-offs aiming to repeat their successes of 2010 and 2014. There are two guarantees with this match-up – not too many goals and incredible atmospheres in both legs.
Sweden v Italy, Tomorrow: Stockholm (7.45pm), Monday: Milan (7.45pm)
WHEN Spain and Italy were drawn in the same group, one of European football’s biggest powers was bound to end up in this position. So it falls upon Italy after the 3-0 defeat to the Spanish in September. Four times World Champions and twice runners-up, you have to go back to 1958 for the last time the Azzurri did not take part in the World Cup finals. It’s almost unthinkable for them not to be in Russia.
Sweden have always happily played the role of underdogs and they will do so again. Although this time, they are hampered by the lack of a stand-out player since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Expect the Italians to be their usual selves in defence, but they will be looking to Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli to provide the inspiration they need in attack.
Denmark v Republic of Ireland, Saturday: Copenhagen (7.45pm), Tuesday: Dublin (7.45pm)
IF anyone knows what these play-offs are all about, it’s the Republic of Ireland. This is the fifth time they have faced this November crunch for a World Cup spot, stretching back to 1965. There was the joy of Tehran in 2001 but don’t mention Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009.
In Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, the Republic have a managerial double act that have rekindled the old Irish spirit and a knack of producing big results at the right time. They won in Wales last month, they beat and drew with Germany on route to Euro 2016, they overcame Bosnia in the play-offs, they defeated Italy in the Euros. But getting past Denmark and through to a first World Cup for 16 years would be the biggest achievement of the lot.
The Danes’ Christian Eriksen is the stand-out player on both sides, so the Irish have to find a way of stopping him making those telling passes which are so deadly for Tottenham. But the fact that Nicklas Bendtner remains the first-choice striker should be a sign of confidence for Ireland.
New Zealand v Peru, Saturday: Wellington (3.15am); Thursday: Lima (2.15am)
NEW ZEALAND were always going to be in this position, given their status as the only team of note in Oceania. The question was who their opponents would be. Given that it could have been Argentina, Chile or Colombia, they will be pleased to be facing the Peruvians. They have been the forgotten team of South America, having not reached a World Cup since 1982 – although Scotland will never forget being on the end of a costly 3-1 defeat in 1978!
So this is a real opportunity for both nations. Peru are hampered by the suspension of star centre-forward Paolo Guerrero while New Zealand are sweating on the fitness of theirs, Burnley’s Chris Wood. There is so much at stake, but the All Whites must take some kind of lead over to South America to have any real chance of making it to Russia.
Honduras v Australia, Tomorrow: San Pedro Sula (10pm), Wednesday: Sydney (9am)
IT’s the fourth-placed team in the Concacaf region against the fifth-best in Asia in this inter-continental match-up. It could have been USA against the Australians, but the Americans fluffed their lines in losing the final qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. The Aussies have already come through a two-legged play-off against Syria to reach this stage, so can their nerves take much more of this?
At 37, Tim Cahill is still going strong for Australia and remains the Socceroos’ chief goal threat. The former Everton star headed the winner in that last match over the Syrians for his 50th international goal and he will be aiming to take his place at his and his country’s fourth successive World Cup. Ex-Wigan defender captains the Hondurans, whose squad are predominantly home-based as they aim to reach a third World Cup in a row having played in 2010 and 2014.
THE final round of matches takes place in African qualifiers with three spots still on offer as Egypt and Nigeria have already qualified.
Tunisia need a point at home to Libya to secure their passage in Group A. DR Congo must win at home to Guinea and hope for a Tunisian defeat to nick the final spot. In Group D, Senegal have a two-point advantage over Burkina Faso and have two matches to play. If they win either away to South Africa tomorrow or at home to the same opponents on Tuesday, the Lions of Teranga will be back for the first time since their heroics of 2002. Finally in Group C, it’s a straight shoot-out between Ivory Coast and Morocco. If the Ivorians win, they will qualify for a fourth straight time. Any other results and the Moroccans will return to the world stage after a 20-year absence.