October 18 – Sweden have arguably drawn the short straw in the European playoffs for next year’s World Cup with a mouth-watering tie against Italy who last failed to qualify back in 1958.
Switzerland, the unluckiest team not to qualify automatically having won all but one of their qualifiers, face Northern Ireland, who last qualified in 1986, with the first leg in Belfast.
Croatia, who were runners-up behind Iceland in their group, will face Greece with the first leg at home. The fourth tie pits the Republic of Ireland, who will be playing in a playoff for a major tournament for the ninth time, against Denmark, who host the first match.
Sweden have not beaten Italy in their last five meetings but the tie is by no means a foregone conclusion. Although Italy finished second in their group behind Spain, they looked anything but impressive.
“Nobody has ever considered, or is considering, the hypothesis of not qualifying for the World Cup,” said Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura but his opposite number Janne Andersson is just as confident.
“We had the toughest qualification group against Netherlands and against France and we played some really good games. If we can play at the level, then we can beat any team in the world, including Italy,” he told Reuters.
Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill, whose unheralded team performed wonders at Euro 2016, said they would make life as difficult as possible for Switzerland, who are bidding to qualify for their fourth successive World Cup.
“We’re here on merit. We were second in our group behind the Germans, of course we believe we can win it,” he said. “We can make the tie very difficult for Switzerland. They will be favourites to go through, we believe we are capable of overcoming them.”
The first and second legs will take place November 9-14, with the winners joining the nine European teams already qualified.
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