Best Odds: 21/10
On Thursday night, Michael O’Neill’s Northen Ireland side will be playing host to Switzerland in the first leg of their play-off draw. Both sides will be entering the contest in high spirits and the Northern Irish supporters will be hoping that their Windsor Park support can keep them on track for their first appearance at a World Cup since 1986.
After being drawn in Group C, the same qualifying group as defending world champions Germany, manager Michael O’Neill was more than aware that his Northern Irish side were never going to be able to secure automatic qualification for next years finals. Instead, the Green and White Army mounted a historic charge to secure their playoff position.
Despite losing their last two matches to Germany and Norway, Northern Ireland finished their campaign four points ahead of third place Czech Republic. Although O’Neill’s side may be entering the contest with two consecutive defeats, his team will be feeling incredibly confident. Winning five of their last seven international matches, Northern Ireland staggeringly did not concede a single goal on their winning run, taking the scalps of Norway and the Czech Republic on the way.
The Green and White army will also be boosted by the fact they have been drawn to play the first leg at home. Playing in front of their beloved Windsor Park crowd, Northern Ireland have only lost twice at home in the past four years, with their only defeats coming against Germany and Croatia.
Despite only returning from an 11-month injury absence a fortnight ago, Sunderland midfielder Paddy McNair has been named as part of Michael O’Neill’s side. Along with McNair, Nottingham Forest forward Jamie Ward will also be included in the squad after missing the past five matches with a hamstring injury. Veteran defender Aaron Hughes has also been passed fit.
Captain Steven Davis will make his 100th appearances as he captains Northern Ireland on Thursday night and will be partnered by Oliver Norwood at the heart of Ireland’s midfield.
Northern Ireland will be walking a disciplinary tightrope though, with Davis and West Brom defender Johnny Evans among eight players already on a yellow card.
For the Swiss, they will undoubtedly still be feeling hard done by, after missing out on automatic qualification by the smallest of margins. Finishing the group stage with 27 points out of a possible 30 in Group B, Vladimir Petković’s sides points total would have seen them secure top spot in five of the eight qualifying groups.
They will certainly be entering the contests as the clear favorites, currently ranked 11th in the FIFA rankings, the Swiss are 12 places higher than their hosts on Thursday night. Despite falling short on the final game of the group stage and being overtaken by Portugal, Switzerland have shown themselves to be a well-drilled side. During their qualifying push, Petković’s team have managed to find the back of the net 23 times, only conceding seven goals in return.
In terms of their form away from the Stade de Suisse, the Reds do boast an eye-catching record, although their victories might have come against the likes of Hungary, Andorra, Latvia and the Faroe Islands, Switzerland have only lost one of their last six games when playing on foreign soil.
For Thursday’s key clash, Switzerland will be without former Arsenal defender Johan Djourou who has suffered a knee injury. The Swiss will also be without versatile midfielder Valon Behrami after it was confirmed that he has picked up a thigh problem.
Key Factors to Consider
- Northern Ireland have won nine of their last 11 games
- This will be the fifth meeting between these two countries, with Northern Ireland winning twice (D1 L1)
- Switzerland won nine of their 10 qualifying games
- The Swiss have only conceded seven goals in qualifying, managing to score 23 in return
- Northern Ireland have only lost twice at Windsor Park in the last four years
Although on paper the Swiss may enter the matchup as a clear favorite with the bookmakers, it is impossible to write off Northern Ireland when they’re playing at Windsor Park. Given the fact that fact that Northern Ireland have only seen more than three goals in two of their nine games, coupled with Switzerland’s strong defensive record, it has all the trappings of a cagey game. With a draw listed at 21/10, it seems like both sides could leave with a point ahead of their second leg clash on Sunday evening.
Best Odds: 21/10
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