23 sides have made it to Russia, this week will see the last 9 places at the World Cup decided. Here’s a preview of the games ahead;
The European Playoffs
Croatia vs Greece
I’m trying to be impartial on the playoffs but I’ll make an exception for this- nobody wants to sit through Greece playing 3 games of turgid football next summer. The team that provide that antidote to exhilaration haven’t changed much since 2004 but being tight at the back and scoring one goal from a set piece is a perfect formula for the playoffs.
Croatia with their dynamic playmakers of Rakitic and Modric should have too much quality but will need to breakdown Greece at least twice to progress.
Prediction First Leg: Croatia 2-0 Greece. Croatia to qualify 3-1
Northern Ireland vs Switzerland
It’s been another successful campaign for Northern Ireland but losing that final qualifier in Norway dropped them into the unseeded pot at the play off draw and now they face this tough looking draw. The Swiss won their first 9 qualifiers before succumbing to Portugal last month, they are a quality side who are a prolific number 9 away from being amongst Europe’s front runners.
Playing at home first should suit Northern Ireland with better sides than Switzerland wilting in the white hot atmosphere of Windsor Park. having a lead to defend for the second leg will be imperative if Michael O’Neill’s men are to qualify for their first World Cup in 32 years.
Prediction First Leg: N.Ireland 1-1 Switzerland. Switzerland to qualify 2-1
Sweden vs Italy
What have the Swedes done to upset the footballing Gods? First they get a qualifying group with Holland & France and having survived they picked out the biggest fish in the playoff pond.
Italy have underwhelmed in qualifying and were embarrassed 3-0 by Spain in the group decider back in September. But Italy know how to qualify and with their fabled backline will fancy keeping a clean sheet in Sweden.
The Swedes are functional but as they showed in their loss away to Holland there isn’t a great deal of penetration in their side and its difficult to see them catching out the BBC of Italy.
Prediction First Leg: Sweden 0-0 Italy. Italy to qualify 3-0
Denmark vs Rep. Ireland
Irish fans were thrilled with this draw given it was the best case scenario, that shouldn’t be interpreted as this being an easy draw- it isn’t. The Danes much like the Irish are well organised and tough to play against, man for man these two sides are very closely matched bar one man- Christian Eriksen. The Spurs playmaker is head and shoulders above everyone else in this tie and keeping him quiet is vital for Ireland particularly given the first leg is in Copenhagen.
I can see this one being the closest of all these ties and extra time at the Aviva wouldn’t be a surprise. I just suspect Eriksen and Kasper Dolberg breaking free at the death and sending Denmark to the finals.
Prediction First Leg: Denmark 1-0 Ireland. Denmark to qualify after extra time 2-1
New Zealand vs Peru
Great news for the All Whites- it’s Peru and not Argentina or Chile. Peru found a run of form late in the South American qualifying group and pipped Continental Champs Chile at the death.
This is a largely unheralded Peruvian side with the majority of the squad home based and their best known player former Schalke striker Jefferson Farfan now aged 33. New Zealand are an improving side and Chris Wood is always likely to pinch a goal. I don’t expect this to be a classic and with a passionate Wellington crowd behind them I can see the All Whites taking a lead to South America for the second leg.
Prediction First Leg: New Zealand 2-1 Peru. Peru to qualify on away goals.
Honduras vs Australia
Honduras were the beneficiaries from the USA’s shock exit and sneaked into 4th place in the Concaaf group. The Hondurans were the ugliest participant in the 2014 World Cup and haven’t evolved much since. Meanwhile Australia made heavy weather of beating Syria to make it this far. The Socceroos are still heavily dependant on Tim Cahill although Aaron Mooy is enjoying a fine season in the Premier League with Huddersfield. This will be low scoring and tense but Socceroos should have enough to make it.
Prediction First Leg: Honduras 1-1 Australia. Australia to qualify 2-1.
Africa Qualifying: Final Rounds
Egypt and Nigeria have made it, the other 3 groups are going to the wire:
Tunisia are almost home, needing only a draw at home to bottom placed Libya to qualify for their first finals since 2002. If they fail DR Congo will replace them as group winners if they beat Guinea at home.
Prediction: Tunisia to qualify
A playoff in all but name Morocco travel to Ivory Coast requiring a draw to qualify whilst the Ivorians must win. This isn’t an Ivorian side to compare with the Toure/ Drogba lead teams of recent years- they’re still picking Saloman Kalou! But they do have quality (Aurier, Zaha, Gradel) and a strong home record and that should see them through.
Prediction: Ivory Coast to qualify 3-1 on the night
With that controversial South Africa/ Senegal to be replayed (making that effectively a two legged playoff this week) all 4 teams are still in with a mathematical chance of qualification. However Senegal have a 2 point lead and winning either game against the South Africans will put them out of sight and on the plane to Russia.
Prediction: Senegal to qualify