This international break is a bit frustrating with the Premier League and Champions League getting into decisive periods. It is, also, well worth the domestic action respite. There are a few meaningless friendlies cluttering the schedule, but we have the tension of World Cup playoffs.
A straight, two-legged showdown for a spot in the groups in Russia next summer. Almost as good as non-tournament international matches get.
CROATIA vs GREECE
Croatia looked to have Group I wrapped up for much of the qualifying campaign. It turned out not to be the case, though, when Iceland once again spoiled the party to snatch top spot. As a result, Luka Modric and co are facing the 2004 European champions over two legs to secure a place in Russia.
Greece pipped Bosnia and Herzegovina to second spot in Group H behind the runaway Belgians. Their 17 goals was a couple more than their hosts for this fixture, but they conceded a couple more too.
Croatia were solid in their group, but goals proved hard to come by. Only once – in the opening match against Kosovo – did they score more than two. Only in one of their ten matches did both teams score.
The visitors were just as ineffectual in the final third, having bolstered their goal scoring numbers with eight against Gibraltar.
TIP: Under 2.5 goals @ 4/7
NORTHERN IRELAND vs SWITZERLAND
Northern Ireland leant on a steely defence to grab a playoff berth. They will aim to do so again when they face Switzerland.
The Swiss won nine of their 10 in the group stage. A truly stunning record, yet it’s even more stunning that they ended up in the playoffs. In the same group, Portugal also won nine of 10, but the European champions ended with a far superior goal difference.
Switzerland’s solitary defeat came in the last match of the group stage to Portugal, just to make it even tougher to take. The under 2.5 goal line looks well priced here...
Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri is one of the stars for Switzerland, and could be creative spark to unlock a Northern Ireland defence that kept seven clean sheets in the group stage. Switzerland did keep six of their own, mind.
TIP: Under 2.5 goals @ 21/50
SWEDEN vs Italy
Italy had to settle for second in Group G. The near-perfect Spaniards blocked their direct path to the World Cup, so it’s a challenging tie with Sweden to determine their immediate future.
Sweden had their own challenges to even get this far. The Netherlands’ recent demise contributed to their success, but it still required some hefty goal scoring against the minnows to secure their place in the playoffs. A victory over France was the undoubted highlight, and this Swedish team are every bit as tough to beat as their reputation suggests.
Drawing with Macedonia and scraping past Albania hardly brings the Italians into this on top form. The search for balance in the team is yet to reach a helpful ending, and creativity has been almost non-existent throughout the qualifying campaign.
Unfortunately, we could be in for yet another cagey encounter in this one. First legs are often dictated by a desire to stay in the tie, I can see this being tense, but boring.
TIP: Sweden or Draw @ 16/25
DENMARK vs Republic of Ireland
It took a rearguard action and an almost painfully pressurised victory against Wales, but the Republic of Ireland have made it to the playoffs. Their tie with Denmark is probably as good as they could have hoped for.
Denmark, though, have one of the form players in world football available in the shape of Christian Eriksen. The Spurs midfielder is the man to watch in this match, and could turn the tie in a moment of individual brilliance. Or, if given space, could dictate the match for 90 minutes.
A draw with Romania to end the group stage showed the inconsistency of this Denmark side. They will have fancied their chances in a fairly easy group, but could not keep pace with Poland.
Ireland, meanwhile, will throw their backs straight against the wall and hope to snatch a goal. That has been the general game plan under Martin O’Neill, and will stick with it. Only scoring 12 in their group is a worry, and means a couple of goals for the Danes could as good as kill this tie.
TIP: Denmark to win @ 8/11
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*