We’re getting down to the nitty gritty in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Here are my thoughts on each of the upcoming European playoff series.
With all due respect to Northern Ireland – who showed quite well at Euro 2016, and continued to prove throughout qualifying that if you have the right attitude, you can do things at the top level, even if you have very few (see none) top players – Switzerland would have every right to feel completely ripped off if doesn’t qualify for Russia.
The Swiss were wonderful in qualifying, winning nine of their ten games. The one loss? On the final matchday against Portugal, the team they beat to open their campaign, and the team that would edge them on goal difference at the death to book automatic qualification for Russia next summer.
This is not to suggest they will roll over Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland. In fact, no one would be that surprised if the Swiss crashed out, it’s just they would have a right to feel nauseous.
O’Neill has worked wonders with his side, mind you. Few teams work harder and defend better. O’Neill might well jump back into club football after this campaign ends, and he should be able to write his own ticket especially if Northern Ireland qualifies.
It is a sad state that these two nations were so concerned about the behaviour of their fans that they agreed to ban away supporters for both legs. Frankly it is embarrassing, and the two respective federations need to look at themselves in the mirror.
Of course, Croatian soccer is in turmoil off the field at many levels. Corruption, scandal and general mismanagement has made it extremely difficult for a talented group of players to succeed on the pitch. Croatia should have qualified automatically, but a late loss to Turkey and a draw against Finland allowed Iceland finish ahead of them.
The players have not performed, Luka Modric included. A World Cup without Croatia would feel stranger, and considering this is likely Modric’s last chance to play in an International tournament, it would be a crying shame if they didn’t make it.
Of course, Greece turned the football world on its head back in 2004, and for that we’ll always be grateful.
Let’s all be honest: we know the Azzurri are going to win, and will limp into the World Cup with all of Italy berating its dreadful underachievers. Italy will then go on to make the World Cup final, and we’ll all be left scratching our heads.
So, let’s focus on the Swedes. Post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic Sweden has been rather trouble free. The expected malaise didn’t materialize, and Sweden jockeyed back and forth with France (including earning a famous win) for first place, only to fall in the end. Even the Netherlands made a late push, failing to jump past Sweden on goal difference.
Sweden is seven matches unbeaten at home, so if you want to see a cagey first leg, this is probably the one to watch.
I am not sure if there is a more underrated player in the Premier League than Christian Eriksen. Sure, he’s respected, but he still operates in the shadows of better known, but not as good players. There is no doubt that he is the main man in Denmark, though, with coach Age Hareide declaring, “when we get the ball, the first thing we do is look for Christian.”
Ireland will not be eaten alive like other Christians to the Lions, but they will be in tough here. Like their neighbours to the north, the Republic rely a lot on character and work rate; they will physically go after the Danes, who will need to prove just how great they are.
Playoffs can be a fickly business, with memories of Thierry Henry’s hand-ball still fresh in the minds of Irish supporters. I just have a feeling, this two-legged tilt might provide all the drama we need.