The World Cup qualifying play-offs kick-off tonight with Northern Ireland hosting Switzerland in the first leg at Belfast and Croatia facing Greece in Zagreb.
Meetings between the Irish and the Swiss are as rare as a yodel in Derry with the last encounter way back in 1964. In the intervening period, Northern Ireland have qualified for just two World Cups - 1982 and 1986 - so the play-off provides Michael O’Neill‘s side with the best chance of reaching football’s showpiece tournament in a generation.
“The most important thing is we don’t concede an away goal,” said O’Neill, ahead of tonight’s clash at Windsor Park. “We’ll be prepared for Belfast. We’ve only lost one game there in four years.”
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There’s no reason why O’Neill’s side shouldn’t be confident. They had a solid qualifying campaign, finishing second in Group C behind world champions Germany, and they showed last year in reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016 that they have both consistency and quality.
But so do the Swiss. Unbeaten in their group going into the final game against Portugal, a 2-0 defeat to the 2016 European champions meant they finished second to the Portuguese only on goal difference.
“We have a mini-tournament ahead of us and we have to be better than our opponents,” said Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic. “That means we start with zero points again. We must cancel everything that happened and concentrate on the most important thing, and this is the game in Belfast.”
Captain Steven Davis will win his 100th cap tonight, 12 years after making his debut against Canada, and the standing of Northern Ireland has increased dramatically in the interim. Ranked 111th in the world in 2005, the defeat to Canada was one of the lowest points in the history of the national team. “When I first came into the side, the team were struggling and over the years I’ve experienced the lows,” Davis said. “But thankfully the last few years have been mainly positives and that makes us appreciate what we’ve achieved even more.”
Now just two games away from his first World Cup, Davis will need to bring all his experience to bear against a Swiss side that includes some experienced campaigners in Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Haris Seferovic. “We’ll make it as uncomfortable for Switzerland as possible,” said the Southampton central midfielder, who will lead his side to Basel on Sunday for the return leg. “Our fans have a huge part to play, they have done in every success that we’ve had. We’ll need that once again from them. As players, we need to go out there and give it our all. Our dream is at stake and we want to go and qualify for the World Cup. There’s a real belief that we can go out and do it but, at the same time, we’re not underestimating how difficult it’s going to be.”
In the night’s other tie, Croatia will be quietly confident of securing a first-leg advantage against visitors Greece. The Croats have won all four of their previous play-off ties - to reach either the World Cup or European Championship - and winger Ivan Perisic struck a bullish note at the pre-match press conference, telling reporters: “The Greeks will certainly be defensive and try as hard as they can to keep a clean sheet, but we have enough up our sleeve up front in an effort to swing the tie our way in Zagreb.”
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