Eight teams left. Four spots open. One goal to achieve. By November 14th we will know who the last four European teams are when it comes to the 2018 World Cup.
Switzerland will be in tough versus a very pesky and defensively organized Northern Ireland side. Croatia with their extremely offensive side will look to finish off Greece in the first of the two legs. Denmark and Republic of Ireland will square off in an evenly matched duo where toughness could play a big part. And in the most intriguing match-up of all, a new look Sweden side will take on the almighty Italians for a berth to Russia.
Here is how I think the match-ups will shape up.
Northern Ireland vs Switzerland
Northern Ireland has a chance to make the World Cup for the first time since 1986 where they were winless in three matches played. Like teams in the past, this Northern Ireland team does not have a clear cut superstar, but they work extremely well as a unit, up and down the pitch. Lafferty and Magennis led the team with three goals each which shows you that they do not score many goals, but at the same time they only gave up six in qualifying with five of those being scored by Germany over two matches. Steven Davis pulls the strings in midfield and will need to be the focal point for Northern Ireland.
Switzerland had their destiny in their own hands, but in the last match of qualifying they ended up losing 2-0 to Portugal. This Swiss team is still fairly stacked with players who play for some big European clubs, but they did struggle a bit in qualifying even though they had nine wins and just one loss. Seferovic and Shaqiri will be counted on heavily to score for the Swiss, something Shaqiri had trouble doing in qualifying, scoring only one goal, but he did manage to register five assists. The Swiss midfield must dictate the tempo of these two legs because Northern Ireland will most likely sit back and try to catch Switzerland on the counter attack, something they are very good at.
Do not expect a draw in either leg, since both teams combined had only one during qualifying. I expect the Swiss to put the pressure on Northern Ireland early and score early. Apart from Lafferty, Northern Ireland does not have many threats when it comes to scoring goals. Switzerland JUST gets by Northern Ireland.
Croatia vs Greece
Croatia has put together a very offensive squad for the tie vs Greece. The weakness of this Croatian squad is their backline. Subasic had an awful match vs Turkey where Croatia lost and Lovren has been terrible for Liverpool this season to say the least. The midfield is stacked with playmakers such as Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and newcomer, Vlasic who is still only 20 years old. Up top Mandzukic will most likely get the nod to start, but look for Kramaric to be the x-factor. He scored a brace vs Ukraine to put Croatia in the playoff.
Greece once again struggled to score goals in qualifying, netting only 17 in 10 matches played. Up front, Mitroglou is their main threat…and that is about it. Samaris will have his hands full trying to limit the Croatian attack in what they can do, but it will take more than one man to stop them. Greece will park the bus, no questions about it that is why I feel they should go with a three back system that features Papastathopoulos, Manolas and Papadopoulos-their best defenders. It will be important for Greece to frustrate Croatia as much as possible, since Croatia will come out guns blazing from the opening whistle.
Some food for thought: Croatia has two wins, two losses and a draw in their last five matches, so they are not coming into this tie in top form. All the pressure is on Croatia. If they do not get the win at home, it could be difficult to get one in Greece, even though a tie could potentially take them through, depending on how the first matches finishes. When it is all said and done, I have to give Croatia the upper hand due to their offensive prowess. If Greece goes down by a goal or two, they do not have the offense to respond with.
Denmark vs Republic of Ireland
It is Christian Eriksen’s time to shine. He is Denmark’s best player and one of the best playmakers in the world. A lot depends on him, but no pressure here. Denmark has a solid blend of youth and veteran leadership in their line-up, starting with the experienced Kjaer, who has 72 caps for the national team, and going all the way down to Poulsen, who is a relate newcomer to the national team. For all the jokes people crack about Bendtner, I would not be surprised if he plays a big role, if Denmark does indeed make the World Cup next year. Denmark gets the upper hand when it comes to goalkeeping as well; Schmeichel is much better than Randolph, in my opinion.
Ireland does not score much…at all, but they do not concede either. They love to play a rough style with a ton of crunching tackles and the referees let them get away with it because it is their style of play. Long will be Ireland’s main threat with McClean being a good second option with his hard work, dedication and willingness to get to the ball first. Murphy has the potential to be a real x-factor for Ireland scoring three big goals in qualifying.
If Denmark can keep up with Ireland’s aggressive play then they just might have a chance at advancing. Eriksen has to make good on the space that he is given because the back four and midfielders will clamp down on him every chance that they get. With that being said, Delaney has to be ready to step in and take the pressure off Eriksen. In a shocking move, Dolberg has not been named to the squad that will compete against the Republic of Ireland. I do not expect this to be pretty from Ireland’s point of view. As long as they advance, they will take a win any way that they can. Even though their backline does not “wow” you with the names, they are a solid group that does not give up many goals. If they can keep it compact and control Eriksen, they have a great chance at advancing. Ireland is very dangerous from set pieces, something Denmark will need to be careful with. This is a tough one to predict, but I have to give the edge to Ireland. I do not feel that Denmark will be able to handle their aggressive play and coupled with that, Ireland does not lose at home very often.
Sweden vs Italy
Most people will not give Sweden a chance in this duo vs Italy. Berg had a great qualifying phase scoring eight times which was tied for 5th among European players. The Swedes also managed to beat a great France side thanks to Toivonen’s injury time winner which will no doubt give them some confidence heading into the playoff. With the retirement of Isaksson and Ibrahimovic, Sweden was supposed to be in a bit of a transition phase or a rebuild if you will, but they have fared a tie in the playoff versus a tough and experienced Italian side. Berg, without a question, will be relied heavily on to score goals. Forsberg and Claesson will need to win the battle in the midfield and provide for the aforementioned Berg and Toivonen. This Sweden team has been shaky at the back, allowing three goals to Bulgaria in qualifying, something Italy will look to expose.
I am not sure it is a big surprise Italy has to go through the playoff seeing as they were in a group with a very powerful team from Spain. Not much has changed at the back with Buffon still commanding his backline that consists of: Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini. The Swedes have Berg and Toivonen, while the Italians now have an in-form Immobile who scored six goals and an exciting Belotti who scores goals at will for his club Torino. Controlling the central part of the midfield, I would have the very experienced De Rossi. He has lost a step or two, but he will still be a very valuable asset to this Italian side. Insigne has been outstanding for Napoli in the past two seasons, so a start for him on the wing with his speed is a must. He is also a great passer of the ball and will be one of the main guys to provide service for Immobile up top.
For me, this is the most intriguing match-up of the four. It is Sweden’s new, rebuilt team vs a veteran Italy squad that has all the experience in the world. With the first match being played in Sweden, it is crucial that the home team takes either a win or draw to Italy, just to put a bit of pressure on the Azzurri. I have to take Italy here just based off experience.
Ogi is a graduate of Humber College’s Sport Management program. He is the founder of Blago Blogger Sports.