Two more crucial World Cup qualification play offs take place on Friday and Saturday nights, as four more teams battle it out for a place at Russia 2018. Martin O’Neill’s Ireland face a tough challenge away in Denmark on Saturday night, while an intriguing tie between Sweden and Italy takes centre stage on Friday night.
Ireland’s World Cup hopes looked dead and buried just a few months ago after successive draws against Austria and Georgia and defeat to Serbia. They snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the final two group matches, beating Moldova 2-0 before going on to record that memorable win in Wales. James McClean’s strike saw Ireland leapfrog Wales to claim second place behind Serbia and set up this two-legged play off.
Denmark finished 2nd behind Poland in group E, and have fresh memories of missing out on major tournaments via play off heartache. Sweden beat Denmark over two legs in a Euro 2016 qualifier just two years ago, so many of the current players will have experienced that disappointment.
In the other play off, scheduled 24 hours earlier, a new-look Sweden welcome a strong Italian side. The Swedes have adjusted to life without Zlatan Ibrahimovic admirably, and they took second place behind France and ahead of Netherlands in qualification. Italy were alway up against it when they were drawn out of the hat with Spain, and second place in group G is no disgrace.
Denmark v Ireland
Ireland may have been underestimated a little by the bookmakers in this tie, and odds of +117 with 888Sport about Ireland or draw are tempting.
Both Denmark and Ireland ‘timed their runs’ to perfection in qualifying, finishing strongly to take 2nd place in their respective sections. The Danes beat Poland and Montenegro in two of their last four group matches, pulling clear of the latter in the standings.
Denmark drew 2-2 here with Sweden in that Euro 2016 play off back in 2015 after losing the first leg 2-1. Since then the Danish home record hasn’t been foot perfect. They’ve only won two of the last five home matches, drawing twice and losing once. The draws were against Germany in a friendly and against Romania in the final group match when 2nd place was assured, so there are some mitigating circumstance. However, the defeat was a 1-0 loss to group rivals Montenegro in a crucial qualifier in October last year.
Ireland, by contrast, showed their fortitude during Euro 2016 with that incredible win over Italy. They showed character again by beating Wales 1-0 in Cardiff to take 2nd place – almost a play off game in its own right. Martin O’Neill is a shrewd manager who has masterminded some excellent away results for the Irish. In Euro 2016 qualifying they earned valuable points in Germany and Bosnia, while in this campaign they’ve won in Austria, Wales and Moldova, and taken points in Georgia and Serbia. Ireland are unbeaten on the road so far in this World Cup qualification process, and they are fair value to get a positive result on Saturday night.
Sweden v Italy
Sweden are also good value to get at least a draw in their first leg tie with Italy on Friday, at odds of -167 with Bet365.
Italy are one of the top tier international sides, but they are still to prove that they are the same force of old. Antonio Conte restored much of the Italian reputation with his Euro 2016 displays, but this qualification campaign has still left some nagging questions. They were beaten 3-0 away in Spain, and held 1-1 on home soil in the reverse fixture. They were also held to a 1-1 draw by Macedonia in Italy in the group though, and only managed 1-0 wins over Albania and Israel. It would be a surprise to see Italy take the game to Sweden in an attacking sense on Friday night, but more likely to see them play a pragmatic game with the second leg always in mind.
Sweden may also feel their best chance is to get a result on home ground, but will have to keep in mind the danger of playing an open game against top-level opposition. After finishing 2nd ahead of the Netherlands in a tough group, the Swedes have no reason to feel intimidated, however, and can use home advantage to their benefit. They’ve won the last four in front of their national fans, including a 6-0 thumping of Slovakia and that 2-1 qualifying win over France.
Ireland or Draw – Double chance
Saturday 11th November, 19:45 GMT
Sweden or Draw – Double chance
Friday 10th November, 19:45 GMT