After a long and gruelling group stage there are eight European nations still dreaming of booking a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia. Italy, Sweden, Croatia, Greece, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland are all only two games away from qualifying. But can any of them go on to win the whole thing next summer?
As half of these sides won’t even make it to the finals it may seem a little early to predict glory for any of them. But once the play offs are decided the victors will be eagerly awaiting their first game in Russia and dreaming of winning the ultimate prize…
Northern Ireland v Switzerland
Michael O’Neill’s men have performed brilliantly all through the group stage but now face a daunting task of beating a very accomplished and stable Swiss side over two legs. Northern Ireland are out at around 5/2 to qualify and frankly, that’s only worth staking with a free bet option as opposed to risking a cash punt.
Although Switzerland do not have any stand out stars they should have too much for the men in green. Making their mark in Russia will be a different story however. They may have finished with 27 points from 10 qualifying matches but unless they get a favourable draw it is unlikely that Switzerland will go much further than the group stage next year.
Croatia v Greece
Greece already have a major title under their belt after their 2004 European Championship triumph but there would have to be a lot of upsets along the way for Michael Skibbe’s side to repeat that achievement. The Greeks will be defensively tight but Croatia should advance from the play off and have some amazing talent to call on – including Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Perišić. But some terrible results in their last few matches has forced them into these extra games and a regression of form in general means they won’t be lifting the trophy in Moscow.
Denmark v Republic of Ireland
Martin O’Neill’s tactics worked wonders for the Irish in Cardiff but this could be the end of the road for what is – in fairness – a fairly limited side. Their fans would definitely be a positive addition to the World Cup but they are coming up against a Denmark side that finished their qualifying group in impressive form. The Danes also have a real star player in Christian Eriksen. But even his vision and skill will not be able to take them too far in the main competition next summer.
Italy v Sweden
Zlatan Ibrahimović’s retirement from international football has not seemed to affect Sweden who managed to score the most goals in qualifying of any side in the play offs. If anything, not relying on their former talisman has meant the entire squad performing to a higher level. Finishing second behind Spain in their group always looked likely for Italy and although they will be expected to go through here, the Azzurri will be nervous about the outcome knowing that failing to qualify for the World Cup will be a national disaster. But if they do get through then many pundits will have them down as one of the favourites next year. Italy may not be able to call upon Andrea Belotti for their play off matches against Sweden but he could star in Russia next year, ably backed up by Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile.
Germany, France, Spain and Brazil will all be more fancied than Italy – assuming they are to qualify for next summer’s World Cup – but they have upset the odds before and can be at their most dangerous when there is little expected of them. Gian Piero Ventura will know, however, that his side will have to perform at their very best to have a chance of glory – and that all starts with two matches against Sweden in November.