An exciting week of international football came to a conclusion on Tuesday evening as the final few World Cup qualification and playoff spots were confirmed. The playoffs will see 8 European nations vie for 4 World Cup spots, with four nations seeded and the remaining four unseeded. Seeded teams face non- seeded teams in a two legged encounter, home and away.
All that remains now is for FIFA’s official confirmation of the latest World Rankings on Monday 16th October, although for anyone who has done the math (or read any mainstream football publication) the outcomes are already known. The draw for the playoff fixtures will take place on Tuesday 17th October.
Northern Ireland, along with the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Greece, will be unseeded and face the prospect of a tie against any of Switzerland, Italy, Croatia or Denmark. Let’s have a look at the teams that potentially await Northern Ireland.
The Swiss lead their group going into the final group fixture but were pipped at the post thanks to a 2-0 defeat to Portugal who claimed the top spot by way of goal difference. It was the only loss Switzerland endured in their 10 game campaign. Northern Ireland and Switzerland have only faced off 4 times in their histories; the last being a 0-0 draw in Zurich in 2004 – a fixture in which Chris Brunt made his debut.
Player to watch: Stoke City’s winger Xherdan Shaqiri is a handful, to say the least. He may be short of stature but he doesn’t lack in physical strength, has an abundance of skill on the ball and a quick turn of pace. With 20 goals in 66 international appearances, he isn’t a stranger to the scoresheet.
The Italians claimed second place in Group G, 5 points behind a resurgent Spain. Northern Ireland’s only victory against Italy was back in qualifying for the Sweden ‘58 World Cup in January 1958. The last meeting was a 3-0 victory for Italy in the qualification group for Euro 2012, one of those courtesy of a Gareth McAuley own goal. This was 12 months after a creditable scoreless draw at Windsor Park.
Player to watch: Leonardo Bonucci was the subject of a relatively shocking summer move from Juventus to AC Milan. Bonucci reads the game superbly and is an integral part of the Italian back line. Not only does he possess great defensive abilities but he is also blessed with incredible technique and vision, being an effective playmaking force from his own defensive position.
Croatia’s defeat of Ukraine was enough to seal them a seeded playoff spot, they fell in second in their group behind the ever-increasingly popular Iceland who won automatic qualification. Northern Ireland and Croatia have only ever met once, a November 2016 friendly which was won 3-0 Croatia at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland used the fixture as an opportunity to test out a few of the fringe players within the squad.
Player to watch: Luka Modric is currently one of the best midfielders in world football. The Real Madrid man likes to dictate the tempo of matches and is a natural passer of the ball across short and long distances. Modric has become known as being someone who has an incredible ability to ‘assist the assister’, becoming an integral part of scoring plays even if he is not the one to apply the final touch or set up himself.
Denmark took the runner-up spot in Group E ahead of Montenegro but behind Poland. The Danes averaged 2 goals a game through qualifying as they seek a return to World Cup football after missing out in 2014. Northern Ireland and Denmark have met 11 times in International fixtures with Northern Ireland claiming only 2 victories. The most recent encounter was part of the infamous Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland fought back from 1-0 down to claim a 2-1 victory in torrential rain at Windsor Park. The winner coming courtesy of a typically genius finish from David Healy in the 80th minute.
Player to watch: Christian Eriksen is one of a number of Danes who have been schooled at the famous Ajax Amsterdam academy. Eriksen is a typically mercurial playmaker who drifts in and out of games before making a pinpoint pass or unleashing a thrashing shot from distance. He also poses a serious threat from set pieces and averages a goal almost every four games for Denmark.
The cliche says that there are no easy games in International football – this is certainly true of the four potential teams facing Northern Ireland in the playoffs. However, Michael O’Neill has instilled a positivity and a fearlessness within the NI camp alongside his own tactical ingenuity. Northern Ireland’s own fairytale has the potential to continue: a chance to qualify for consecutive finals for the first time ever and a first World Cup since Mexico ’86.
Dare To Dream.