During the next few days, Europe will determine which four teams will clinch a berth in the 2018 World Cup, and which others will end up falling short of that accomplishment. Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Croatia, Greece, Switzerland and Northern Ireland are all vying for a World Cup berth.
Italy will square off against Sweden with an eye towards maintaining their World Cup appearances streak alive. Ireland will play against Denmark in a game where the Scandinavian side appears to have a slight edge on paper. Croatia will battle against Greece, looking to translate their on-paper superiority to the pitch, and Switzerland will meet with Northern Ireland. The Swiss outfit finished with nine wins in 10 matches, yet they ended second after losing the final game of the Group Stage against Portugal.
We know football is quite hard to predict, but we will give it a shot nonetheless. Here is our prediction to see which country will qualify after the upcoming World Cup Playoffs.
Italy vs Sweden
At least on paper, this seems to be the matchup involving the two best teams. On one hand, we have an Italy team that would have likely secured a direct berth to the tournament had not they been on the same group as Spain. And on the other hand, we have a Swedish side that battled against the Netherlands for the second place in Group A behind France. Without a doubt, these two teams are very, very good.
However, the edge goes to Italy here. Both teams averaged over two goals scored and less than one conceded per game during the Group Stage, but experience certainly plays a role in these games. And Italy have a strong core filled with players that feature regularly in some of the best teams in the world, while Sweden rely more on their collective strength due to the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And Italy also have a huge scoring threat in Ciro Immobile, who has been the top scorer in Europe during the current season.
That will be too much to handle for the Swedes, so Italy are likely to advance to keep their World Cup appearances streak alive. The odds back Gli Azzurri in this one, as they are 8/25 to advance into the World Cup, while Sweden have odds of 5/2 of pulling the upset.
Verdict: Italy goes through
Ireland vs Denmark
Italy vs Sweden might be the most star-studded clash during the UEFA World Cup Qualifiers. However, the tie between Republic of Ireland and Denmark is the most even one. Both sides are fairly similar and match quite well with one another, so it does not seem like a stretch to think that this one will go down to the wire. A finish on extra time or penalties seems like a realistic possibility.
If we take a look at their campaigns during the Group Stage, then we can see Ireland struggled at home (2W 2D 1L) but dazzled on the road (3W 2D 0L). Meanwhile, Denmark posted a solid record both at home (3W 1D 1L) and away (3W 1D 1L). Both ended with a similar point-total (20 for Denmark and 19 for Ireland), so we might have to settle this one on individual talent of each side. And it is undeniable that Denmark have more players that can make a difference.
Starting with Christian Eriksen, as the Spurs’ playmaker netted eight goals in 10 Qualifying presences. He has been on top form this season as well, so we can expect him to rise to the occasion when it matters the most, and he will return Denmark to the World Cup after the Scandinavian country missed the tournament four years ago. Denmark are listed at 8/13 to go through, while Ireland are at 5/4. It will be a tight encounter, but all signs indicate Denmark are favourites.
Verdict: Denmark goes through
Croatia vs Greece
If Denmark vs Ireland is the closest tie, then the one featuring Croatia and Greece should be the only one where there is a huge gap between both countries. On one hand we have a Croatian side that features lots of talent on the attacking end. On the other hand we have the defensive force of Greece, led by Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The centre-back duo is arguably the biggest strength on a Greek team that also features names such as Jose Holebas and Kostas Mitroglou.
Greece can certainly pull an upset here, especially at home. But Croatia are just too good, and too deep to lose against a team like the Greek one. With talented midfielders such as Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic playing behind a world-class striker such as Mario Mandzukic, Croatia surely look like the favourite here. Expect them to live up to the expectations and clinch a World Cup berth with relative ease.
How loopsided things are? Well, odds indicate Croatia should go through rather comfortably, as evidenced by their 8/25 odds of reaching the World Cup next year. Greece’s upset is listed at 49/20, suggesting it would be quite a stunner to see them get past Croatia.
Verdict: Croatia goes through
Switzerland vs Northern Ireland
Last but not least, we have Switzerland against Northern Ireland. The Swiss side were one of the most unluckiest teams in the entire UEFA region. They finished the Group Stage with 27 points and, in fact, posted a perfect 9-0-0 record in their initial nine games. But they had to decide their fate against Portugal in the final match, and an 0-2 defeat sent them to the playoff round despite the fact they won nine of their past 10 matches. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland lost their final two games against Germany and Norway, but did not have problems to end in second place of Group C behind Die Mannschaft with a 6W 1D 3L record.
Northern Ireland already stunned the world during the European Championship, and are definitively capable of pulling the upset here. But Switzerland are far more balanced and their qualifying campaign indicates that. They defeated every single team twice. They won against Portugal at home as well, so they could have easily clinched the top spot in most groups had they been placed elsewhere. Switzerland will show that with a convincing performance against Northern Ireland, and will return to the World Cup for the fourth straight time.
Switzerland’s chances to advance are not only backed up by their impressive qualifying campaign, as the odds favour them as well. The Swiss are listed at 33/100, while Northern Ireland have 47/20 odds of pulling the upset. The advantage of the Swiss side seems to be on and off the pitch, it seems.
Verdict: Switzerland goes through
If the four predictions end up being true, then Italy, Switzerland, Croatia and Denmark would secure a berth in the World Cup next year. But we will only know for real once the ball starts rolling in the coming days. Until then, let the speculation begin.
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