While some European nations have secured their place in Russia by topping their qualifying groups, the fate of eight runner-ups is set to be decided by a two-legged playoff round next month. With the fixtures locked in following Tuesday’s draw, let’s take a preview at the ties that will decide the final four UEFA berths for the World Cup.
Match #1 – Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland (9 & 12 November)
With 19 points, Northern Ireland did well to finish second in their group – keeping Norway and Czech Republic from the tournament. If they want to return to their first World Cup since 1986, N. Ireland will be relying heavily on their back line, full of Premier League talent like Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans.
It’s hard to believe that 9 wins from 10 games didn’t guarantee Switzerland a place in Russia, but such is the cruel nature of football. Losing out to Portugal on only goal differential, the Swiss set a European qualifying record for the best campaign from a runner-up. Chalked full of experience, including players like Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez, Switzerland has to be the favorite entering this fixture.
Match #2 – Croatia vs. Greece (9 & 12 November)
With a star studded team full of top European players, Croatians have to be disappointed to see their team finish second, handing Iceland its debut at the World Cup. For Croatia to advance in this fixture, they will be looking to La Liga maestros Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to provide balance in the midfield. Having won all four previous playoffs (a UEFA record), Croatia will be confident in advancing.
For the third World Cup in a row, Greece find themselves in a playoff. Next month they’ll hope to make it three successful qualifications in a row, after finishing just ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina. To edge out Croatia, and end their perfect playoff record, Greece will need positive performances from their forward Kostas Mitroglou, their top scorer in qualifying.
Match #3 – Sweden vs. Italy (10 & 13 November)
The Swedish team is also no stranger to the playoff round, having featured in a 2014 playoff against Portugal. In what was perhaps the most exciting two legs of international football I have ever witnessed, Sweden was left out of Brazil thanks to a Ronaldo hattrick. Since then, Sweden has seemingly gotten back on track, qualifying for EURO ‘16 and finishing second in their qualifying group, keeping the Netherlands out of the tournament. For Sweden to best Italy, they will need their top scorer Marcus Berg to perform well.
When Spain and Italy were drawn in the same group, it seemed evident that one of the two would end up in the qualifying round. After a 3-0 loss to Spain in September, it was pretty clear that Italy would take second place in the group. The Italians did just that, winning 7 games to end with 23 points. Although they did manage a draw against Spain in September, they also drew with Macedonia, and narrowly beat out Israel and Albania. The Italians will need defensive veterans like Buffon and Chiellini to step up if they are to best Sweden next month.
Match #4 – Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland (11 & 14 November)
Hoping to return to the World Cup stage after their absence in 2014, Denmark enjoyed a positive qualifying campaign, winning six games to finish second to Poland – a team they beat 4-0 in September. Behind Spurs playmaker Christian Eriksen, the Danes come into the playoff in a great run of form, not losing for over a year.
For a record eighth time, the Irish find themselves in a playoff. On a dramatic last matchday, Ireland beat Wales to keep them out of the tournament, and secure their place in second. The team will hope to improve their all-time playoff record to 4 wins and 4 losses by beating Denmark, but they will surely have their hands full.