In a week’s time, the field for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will be set. All that’s left to settle are four playoff ties in Europe, two pitting teams from across continental divides, and three groups in Africa.
Drama is guaranteed. The tournament, as we approach the new year, lies just around the corner.
Northern Ireland v. Switzerland: Switzerland had an excellent campaign – winning their first nine games – but it was undone on the final day of group play when they were beaten soundly in Portugal and lost the top spot on goal difference.
Nevertheless, the Swiss should still have enough to reach a fourth straight World Cup. Their opponents in this tie, Northern Ireland, haven’t been to a finals since 1986 and enter this game having lost two straight in October.
Switzerland has, by some distance, the better team. If Northern Ireland is to have a chance, they need to take the lead to Basel for the second leg. If they don’t, they won’t have enough offense to get through.
Croatia v. Greece: Greece, after a nightmarish Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in which they picked up just seven points from ten games and finished behind the Faroe Islands, is out for redemption.
Despite their still considerable talent, Croatia has had an uneven campaign. They only secured progress to the playoff round after replacing manager Ante Cacic awith Zlatko Dalic before a win on the final day of group play in Ukraine.
If Croatia can run up the score in the first leg in Zagreb, they should get through. If they don’t, Greece – as it’s done so many times before – is primed to take advantage.
Sweden v. Italy: The glamour tie of the four. Sweden has improved immensely in its first two years without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and, to point, it was their eight-goal explosion in Luxembourg on the penultimate day that was the difference in their progression ahead of the Dutch.
Italy, meanwhile, looks fairly insipid in the post-Antonio Conte era. The Azzurri are still short on attacking talent, and still led by the Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini triumvirate at the back.
This tie is a tossup. Sweden is playing the better soccer, but the Italians do have a wealth of big-game experience to draw upon. Manager Gian Piero Ventura said Monday that Italy is “always there when there’s something important to play for.” We’ll see.