Sunday 22 September 2019

Ignore the rankings and reputations.... all four of Ireland's potential play-off rivals have problems

Martin O'Neill's Ireland will be in tomorrow's World Cup play-off draw
Martin O'Neill's Ireland will be in tomorrow's World Cup play-off draw
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

IRELAND will learn their fate when the draw for the World Cup play-offs take place at 1pm on Tuesday in Zurich.

Here is your run down on the teams Martin O'Neill's men could face, with weak spots evident in all potential rivals.


Coach: Vladimir Petkovic

Star man: Haris Seferovic (Benfica)

One to watch: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)

FIFA ranking: 11th

The Swiss will drop out of FIFA's elite top ten list ahead of their World Cup play-off ties and their lofty position has been propped up by their presence in a weak qualifying group that saw the Faroe Islands finish fourth and collect nine points.

Coach Petkovic was handed a new contract in August after piecing together a perfect six-game winning run at the start of their qualifying campaign that lifted his side up to No.4 in the FIFA rankings, but they are not a team worthy of that kind of lofty status and their limp display in defeat against Portugal on Tuesday confirmed as much.

"We were too passive," conceded Petkovic after his side blew their hopes of automatic qualification.

"In the end, Portugal deserved a win and it was hard for this team because they have not lost a competitive game for a long time. This is a step back, but now we have to take two steps forward in the play-offs in November."

Switzerland's 2-0 win against Portugal at the start of World Cup qualifying was very much a case of catching Cristiano Ronaldo and his colleagues cold after their Euro 2016 triumph, with scoring potency still a concern when the pressure is raised and the quality of opposition moves above mediocre.

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka and Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri sprinkle some Premier League stardust into the Swiss side, but this is not a team Ireland should fear despite their position in the less than reliable FIFA rankings.

VERDICT: Ireland may fancy their chances against a Swiss side that lack a potent goal scoring threat and have built their reputation as one of the rising forces in European football by beating minnows in qualifiers.


Coach: Age Hareide

Star man: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)

One to watch: Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen)

FIFA ranking: 19th

Tottenham midfielder Eriksen is the talisman of this Danish side, with his eight goals in qualifying propelling them to a second place finish in a qualifying campaign that included defeats against Poland and Montenegro.

They head into the play-offs in upbeat mood, after a fine 4-0 win against eventual Group E qualifiers Poland in September banished pessimism that dominated the first half of their efforts to claim top spot and automatic qualification.

"It means a lot for us to be seeded. We would rather avoid teams like Italy, Switzerland and Croatia, so it was important. It can make it easier for us, but it will be hard anyway," declares coach Hareide.

"The four teams play in four different ways. Perhaps Northern Ireland and Ireland are slightly the same, but Sweden and Greece each have their own style and we have to adapt to the team we get."

Aside from a Robert Lewandowski hat-trick in October 2016, Denmark's defensive line held firm for most of the qualifying push, with captain Simon Kjaer a key figure in their engine room.

Werder Bremen midfielder Thomas Delaney caught the eye with a hat-trick against Armenia and Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel will be a familiar last line of defence if he is lining up in Dublin next month.

VERDICT: Denmark are a team with momentum behind them after some recent good results and Eriksen could unsettle an Irish midfield lacking the suspended David Meyler for the play-off first leg, but they are not the most potent in their forward line.


Coach: Zlatko Dalic

Star man: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)

One to watch: Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan)

FIFA ranking: 18th

Led by captain Modric and inspired by Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have talent in abundance and yet they did not find a winning formula in a qualifying push that started well and was derailed by defeats against eventual group winners Iceland and in Turkey.

Croatia appear to have a side that should have stormed clear at the top of World Cup qualifying, but their push for a place in Russia 2018 claimed a high profile scalp on the eve of their final Group I game against Ukraine last Monday.

Finland's last gasp equaliser in their game in Rijeka last week proved to be the final star for Croatia coach Ante Cacic, with the bold decision to replace him with Zlatko Dalic one game before the end of a qualifying push highlighting the discontent surrounding the direction of this talent-laden team.

Cacic's confused post match interview following the Finland game - as he constantly referred to his opponents as Iceland in error - was used by the Croatian media to highlight the turmoil within their national team, with captain Luka Modric outspoken in his own post-match interviews.

"We should have beaten Finland and the fact that we sat back after we took a lead against them was unbelievable," declared the Real Madrid midfielder.

"We have a team that should be better, but we are not performing properly, but it is the play-offs now and we have to accept this challenge."

VERDICT: At their best, Croatia may have too much for Ireland, but this current team may are vulnerable and gripped by tension.


Coach: Gian Piero Ventura

Star man: Ciro Immobile (Lazio)

One to watch: Andrea Belotti (Torino)

FIFA ranking: 15th

Italy drew the short straw in qualifying as they were thrown into a group with 2010 world champions Spain, but their less than convincing displays in Group G have piled the pressure on coach Gian Piero Ventura.

A 1-1 stalemate against Macedonia in Turin last week fuelled rumours that Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was being lined up to make a return to his former job as Italy head coach, but a defiant Piero Ventura insists his side will be ready for play-off action.

"We have taken some steps forward in this qualifying campaign and now the two most important games are in front of us," says the former Torino boss.

"It would be a tragedy and a catastrophe if Italy are not at the World Cup finals, but we aim to make sure this does not happen."

Ventura's selection decisions and his refusal to call-up in-form Napoli star Napoli star Jorginho an ongoing point of debate, with veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon leaping to the defence of the Italy coach in a bid to dilute the negativity.

"The most popular sport is to attack Ventura and I don’t find that appropriate," says the Juventus star. "What would be more productive would be to back the team ahead of these play-offs."

Italy have had some bad luck with injuries to key midfielders and they should have a stronger team to pick from next month, but the negative mood surrounding the Azzurri squad that will give their play-off rivals hope of pulling off a major upset.

VERDICT: Italy's reputation is more impressive than their current team and Ireland's counter-attacking and physical style may ruffle their feathers.

Online Editors

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