Ahead of the World Cup play-off draw on Tuesday we preview four danger men Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland could face
There are a number of danger men who could stand between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and a place at the 2018 World Cup.
The two nations will be unseeded for Tuesday’s World Cup play-off draw, when they will learn if they will face either Switzerland, Italy, Croatia or Denmark for a place at next summer’s tournament in Russia.
However, whoever they are paired with in Zurich, both sides will need to keep close attention on a number of world-class stars if they wish to book their place at the showpiece event….
Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka helped Switzerland to nine wins out of 10 matches in their qualifying campaign, but defeat in their final match meant they ended up second in Group B behind European champions Portugal. No European team has ever failed to qualify for the World Cup after securing 27 points in their group. You can bet the unseeded teams are grateful the possibility of facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Co has been taken off the table, and the Republic did beat the Swiss in a friendly in March last year.
Lazio striker Ciro Immobile top scored for the Azzurri with six goals in the qualifiers as they finished second to Spain in Group G. Italy, though, are only in this section because they had the misfortune of drawing Spain in Group G. The four-time World Cup winners were beaten by the Republic at Euro 2016, though it was an Italian team featuring eight changes as their qualification for the knock-out stages had already been confirmed. With Portugal out of the equation, they are the biggest name in this draw.
Croatia could be dangerous opponents too, with Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic top scoring for them in the qualifying section with five goals. They were in danger of becoming the one runner-up that missed out on the play-offs before beating Ukraine in their final group game. Croatia had a tough group that also featured Iceland and Turkey, but were impressive in winning 3-0 against the Northern Irish in Belfast last November, and they did so without Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic.
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will have to keep an eye on Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen if either country draw Denmark. The playmaker top scored for the Danes with eight goals in Group E. The Euro 1992 winners may also be the team all the unseeded sides are hopeful of being drawn against, yet by the time they next play it will be over a year since they last tasted defeat, helping them to move up to 19th in the FIFA world rankings. During that time they have beaten Poland 4-0 and drawn with world champions Germany. The Danes have only reached one World Cup finals since 2002.
Follow the draw for the World Cup play-offs both on Sky Sports News and SkySports.com at 14:00 CET on Tuesday