2018 FIFA WCQ: former champions Italy lead a field of hopefuls

2018 FIFA WCQ: former champions Italy lead a field of hopefuls

The road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia continues with 2006 winners, Italy in the Euro zone play-offs along with seven other nations.

With eight of twelve representatives for Europe already known, the remaining four will be decided in the coming days.

For these teams, there are no more margins for errors, as what began as a marathon has suddenly become a sprint.

That said, we take a look at the battles ahead, and the teams involved, with former world champions, Italy, leading the pack.

Croatia vs Greece
This is a familiar stage for these two, who kickoff the play-off on Thursday.

The home side, Croatia, led by Real Madrid midfield star, Luka Modric, will be bidding for a fifth successful outing at this stage in major competitions, and are up against Greece, who are at this stage for the third time.

With victories in their four previous qualifying play-offs, Croatia will be confident going into this game, but in Greece, they face a stern test, as the Greek hope to become the first European side to reach three consecutive world cups via the play-off.

Northern Ireland vs Switzerland
Looking to avoid an unenviable record, as they could become the first nation to miss out on the world cup after amassing 27points in the group stage, is Switzerland.

The Swiss were unbeaten and top of their group until Portugal pipped them to the automatic ticket on the last day.

Standing in the Swiss’ way is an obdurate Northern Ireland team, who are not scared of anyone as they chase their first appearance at the World Cup since 1986.

However, while the Northern Ireland side have failed to reach the mundial in over three decades, the Swiss have been at the last three and go into this one as the favourites.

Sweden vs Italy
2006 winners, Italy, have been here before, when they beat 2018 host, Russia, enroute France 1998.

However, in Sweden, they are up against a very good side, one that surely have goals in them.

The home side are the top scoring side left in the play-off, having found the net 26times in the group stage.

For the Azzurri, they will need their defence to come through if they are to draw level with Germany in terms of appearance at the world cup.

Denmark vs Republic of Ireland
When it comes to the play-off, no team has been here more times than Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland side.

This will be their eighth appearance, but it has been a mixed result for the Irish, having won three and lost four of the previous seven.

For the Irish, it could be a fifth defeat, as they are up against Denmark, who are not just unbeaten in over a year, but have not lost to Ireland in a competitive setting since 1979.

However, O’Neill’s side will be buoyed by their better head-to-head, as they have won five and drawn five of their 13 previous games.

Elsewhere, there are two intercontinental clashes, first Honduras take on Australia, while New Zealand host South American side, Peru.

New Zealand vs Peru
Four years after their last world cup, achieved via the playoff, New Zealand are back but they are up against a difficult side, Peru, over 100 places above them on the FIFA ranking, and seeking a first appearance at the world cup in over 30 years.

The other intercontinental encounter sees North American side, Honduras, who pipped the United States of America to fourth place in the CONCACAF region, trade tackles with Australia, who are the qualifiers from Asia.

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