World Cup play-offs preview

A place at next year’s World Cup in Russia awaits the winner of UEFA’s play-offs, with Northern Ireland facing Switzerland, and Croatia taking on Greece.

Thursday will see the first matches of the two-legged encounter, with the return legs scheduled for Sunday.

@fifaworldcup Play-Off week is upon us!! ???⚽️ #DreamBigger #GAWA #NorthernIreland #WorldCup #Russia2018

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Northern Ireland v Switzerland

For Northern Ireland, a place in the play-offs was always the best they could hope for after being placed in Group C with world champions Germany, who topped the group with a perfect record of 10 wins out of 10. 

The Northern Irish were then left scrapping for second place, beating the Czech Republic and Norway to a place in the play-offs.

The nation from the UK have not featured at a World Cup since back-to-back appearances at Spain ‘82 and Mexico ‘86, with their best-ever showing in Sweden all the way back in 1958, when they reached the quarter-finals.

They made their first appearances at the European Championships last year, when they got to the round of 16 in France, losing 1-0 to neighbours Wales.

Meanwhile, Switzerland entered the play-offs as the best second-placed team after finishing second behind Portugal in Group B despite earning the same amount of points, but placing second based on goal difference.

Despite being in a relatively weak group, the Swiss almost qualified automatically and will consider themselves favourites.

The Swiss have qualified for each of the last three World Cups, but have been unable to get past the round of 16, where they also lost at Euro 2016 in France, beaten on penalties by Poland. 

This will be just the fourth ever meeting between the two sides, who last met in a friendly in 2004, which finished in a 0-0 draw.

In team news, Northern Ireland will be without Watford midfielder Craig Cathcart and Burton Albion forward Liam Boyce but will have Jamie Ward back in the team after missing the last few qualifiers with a calf injury.

The Swiss have no major injury absentees and can call on experienced stars such as Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami, Xherdan Shaqiri, Admir Mehmedi, Gélson Fernandes, and Haris Seferovic.

Croatia v Greece

Croatia must have fancied their chances of automatic qualification in Group I, but ultimately came second, two points below surprise-package Iceland and above Ukraine and Turkey.

The Croatians have a squad of extremely talented footballers, with a midfield consisting of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, and the Inter Milan duo of Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic. Up front, are strikers Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic, of AC Milan and Juventus respectively.

Croatia have qualified for the World Cup three times since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but have never gone beyond the group stages. Their best showings were quarter-final appearances at Euro 1996 and Euro 2008, and they were eliminated by Portugal at the round of 16 in France last year.

Greece, the Euro 2004 champions, reached the round of 16 in Brazil, their best-ever showing at a World Cup. They were also quarter-finalists at Euro 2012, and still seem to have a propensity for punching above their weight.

The Greeks are known for their uncompromising defence, currently made up of their most recognisable players such as captain Vasilis Torosidis of Bologna, Roma’s Kostas Manolas, and Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos. 

In midfield, Benfica’s Andreas Samaris will be expected to pull the strings, while Marseille striker Kostas Mitroglou will lead the line.

On the injury front, Greece will be without AEK Athens midfielder Petros Mantalos and Stuttgart forward Tasos Donis. Croatia will be unable Bayer Leverkusen defender Tin Jedvaj and Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic.