Friday 14 December 2018

Next stop on the road to Russia?


Lorenzo Insigne of Italy. Photo: Getty Images
Lorenzo Insigne of Italy. Photo: Getty Images Sportsdesk

The new FIFA rankings are out tomorrow and will confirm Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and Denmark as the seeded teams for Tuesday's play-off draw. That means Northern Ireland and Sweden slip below the Danes after losing in the last round of qualifiers, and join the Republic of Ireland and Greece as second seeds. Colin Young examines the qualifying campaigns and recent form of Ireland's possible opponents and Peterjon Cresswell from, a website for travelling football fans, gives an insight into the likely host cities and venues.


FIFA ranking: 17

Manager: Gianpiero Ventura

One to watch: Lorenzo Insigne (pictured)

Ireland record v Italy: P15 W3 D3 L9 F11 A22

Last game: v Albania (A), won 1-0 (Candreva)

Croatia’s Luka Modric. Photo: Reuters
Croatia’s Luka Modric. Photo: Reuters

Team: Buffon (Juventus), Darmian (Manchester United), Bonucci (Milan), Chiellini (Juventus), Spinazzola (Atalanta), Parolo (Lazio), Gagliardini (Inter), Candreva (Inter), Immobile (Lazio). Subs: Zappacosta (Chelsea), El Shaarawy (Roma), Gabbiadini (Southampton).

How did they get here?

The four-time world champions finished a distant second to Spain in their group despite a promising start to the campaign. They drew the second game at home to the Spanish and then scored 16 goals in four wins. But after September's 3-0 trouncing in Madrid, they stumbled into the play-offs with 1-0 wins over Israel and Albania and a 1-1 home draw against Macedonia last week. New manager Ventura is under severe pressure and his 4-2-4 system has fuelled the view he is out of his depth.

Milan or Palermo?

Italy has no national stadium. Recent fixtures have taken place at the Stadio Renzo Barbera (aka La Favorita) in Palermo and the San Siro in Milan.

La Favorita, where Ireland drew two group games at Italia 90, stands outside Palermo city centre, by the main road from the airport.

Home to pink-shirted US Città di Palermo, currently chasing promotion from Serie B, the stadium is a classic bowl of 36,000 capacity. Palermo ultras occupy the Curva Nord. The scant away support making the long journey to Sicily dot three sectors of the Curva Sud. Fringed by palm trees, closer to Tunisia than mainland Italy, La Favorita should be warm in November.

Shared by AC Milan and Internazionale, the iconic 80,000-seater San Siro was overhauled for Italia 90. Atmospheric and intimate - you can smell the turf - the stadium opened in 1926. Ominously, Italy have never lost there.


FIFA Ranking: 26

Coach: Age Hareide

One to watch: Christian Eriksen

Ireland record v Denmark: P13 W5 D5 L3 F20 A16

Last game: Romania (H) drew 1-1 (Eriksen pen)

Team: Schmeichel (Leicester), Kjaer (Sevilla), Durmisi (Betis), Christensen (Chelsea), Dalsgaard (Brentford), Kvist (Copenhagen), Delaney (Werder Bremen), Eriksen (Tottenham), Poulsen (Leipzig), Emirmija (Celta Vigo), Bendtner (Rosenborg). Subs: Dolberg (Ajax), Schone (Ajax).

How did they get here?

The former European champions trailed in five points behind Poland in Group E. The damage was done a year ago when the Danes, under new Norwegian coach Hareide, lost in Poland and at home to Montenegro. They scored 20 goals in 10 games, including a 4-0 win over Poland last month. There are some familiar names in the squad, including Eriksen, captain Simon Kjaer of Sevilla, and former Arsenal and Sunderland striker Nicklas Bendtner, still only 29, who made his first start for two years last week.


Near the city centre, Parken is one of 13 venues due to host Euro 2020. The national stadium has already staged two European club finals, both involving Arsenal.

This functional arena of 38,000 capacity opened in 1992. Denmark had just been crowned shock European champions and newly-formed FC Copenhagen moved in as regular tenants. Their louder fans occupy the Lower B Stand. Stand D is partly allocated to visiting supporters.

It's 15 minutes from Østerport, directly and frequently connected with Copenhagen Central Station. City-centre bars such as The Globe by Nørreport and nearby Pub & Sport are easily accessible.

There's a branch of Scandinavian sport-bar chain O'Learys at Central Station, surrounded by hotels. Functional Cabinn City should suit most pockets, though you should find online deals for the classic Ascot Hotel. The Copenhagen Mercur is a handy mid-range choice.


FIFA ranking: 18

Manager: Zlatko Dalic

One to watch: Luka Modric (pictured)

Ireland record v Croatia: P7 W2 D3 L2 F8 A8

Last game: v Ukraine (a), won 2-0 (Kramaric 2)

Team: Subasic (Monaco), Vida (Dinamo Kiev), Mitrovic (Besiktas), Lovren (Liverpool), Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid), Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Rakitic (Barcelona), Modric (Real Madrid), Badelj (Fiorentina), Perisic (Inter), Mandzukic (Juventus).

How did they get here?

Croatia sacked coach Ante Cacic and appointed Dalic after last Friday's 1-1 draw at home to Finland, which effectively cost them automatic qualification. Dalic was in charge for the winner-takes-all finale against Ukraine three days later, with a play-off place at stake. With Modric and Ivan Rakitic back in full flow in midfield, Croatia pulled off a superb 2-0 win in Kiev to clinch second place behind Iceland. Cacic was on thin ice after last month's defeat in Turkey and former under-21 assistant coach Dalic, back from a successful four-year stint in Abu Dhabi, was a surprise choice. But he is likely to remain in place after such an impressive start.


The lively capital feels like Vienna or Budapest, all Habsburg architecture and breaded meat on the menu. The national team and flagship club Dinamo Zagreb share the Maksimir stadium, by the park of the same name east of town.

It's an easy city to get around, with trams crossing the main square Jelacic. From there, it's ten minutes to Bukovacka, the stop by the Maksimir. Holding 35,000 after a 2011 refit, the Maksimir is open on all four sides. Home fans occupy the North end, visiting supporters the horseshoe-shaped South.

Back in town, behind Jelacic winds the bar strip of Tkalciceva, with foreigner-friendly Oliver Twist and craft-beer pioneer Mali Medo being suitable pub choices.

Accommodation includes quality hostel Taban on Tkalciceva, mid-range Jägerhorn by Jelacic and, at the station, the luxury Esplanade, where Orson Welles used to hire rooms by the hour.


FIFA ranking: 7

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic

One to watch: Xherdan Shaqiri

Ireland record v Switzerland: P16 W8 D3 L5

Last game: Portugal (A) lost 0-2

Team: Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Djourou (Antalyaspor), Schaer (Deportivo La Coruna), Freuler (Atalanta), Xhaka (Arsenal), Rodriguez (Milan), Dzemali (Montreal Impact), Shaqiri (Stoke), Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), Seferovic (Benfica). Subs: Embolo (Schalke), Zuber (Hoffenheim), Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach).

How did they get here?

After beating European champions Portugal in the opening fixture, and then winning every other match in the group, Switzerland were top by three points going into the final game, in Lisbon. But they were overwhelmed and lost 2-0. Switzerland had not conceded a goal at home until Hungary scored two in a 5-2 win last week. But they missed out on goal difference by 12 goals to Portugal, scoring just nine against Andorra and Faroe Islands to Portugal's 19. Ireland have bitter memories of Basel. Brian Kerr's side needed to win in St Jakob Park and they lost 2-0, missing out on Euro 2004. A year later they drew 1-1 in Basel and missed out on the World Cup thanks to a goalless draw with the Swiss in Dublin in the final qualifier.


With its airport in France and a train station in Germany, Basel is also the hotbed of Swiss football. Home of FC Basel, eight-in-a-row champions, fiery St Jakob Park is where Switzerland play key fixtures.

Rebuilt for Euro 2008, when the Swiss played all their group games here, St Jakob also staged the 2016 Europa League Final between Sevilla and Liverpool. Capacity is 37,500,.

The stadium stands in a retail complex south-east of town, connected by match-day train and regular trams. With this direct link by public transport, central Barfüsserplatz is a handy hub for bars and restaurants. Near the Swiss Rail station, Paddy Reilly's is the stand-out Irish pub, by the spa-blessed Radisson Blu Hotel Basel. At the station, the Hotel City Inn and Schweizerhof are cheaper choices.

All these soccer destinations and hundreds more can be found at

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