The match-ups to contest the final four European tickets to the 2018 FIFA World Russia™ have been decided, as the play-off ties featuring the group stage's eight best second-placed sides were confirmed in Zurich on Tuesday.
Drawn by Spain legend Fernando Hierro at the Home of FIFA, the results mean Germany 2006 winners Italy will face Sweden, while Switzerland were paired with Northern Ireland, Croatia meet Greece and Denmark will take on Republic of Ireland.
The first and second legs will take place between 9-11 and 12-14 November respectively, with the winners clinching one of the last remaining World Cup tickets and joining the nine representatives from the continent already set for the finals.
“It was interesting to be the first team out," Northern Ireland manager Micheal O'Neill said after the draw. "We knew whatever team we got was going to be a very difficult game, and Switzerland have had a great qualifying campaign: nine wins, one defeat. We’ve only lost one competitive game in Belfast in four years, which was against Germany, so we intend to make it a very difficult night for Switzerland.”
Sweden coach Jan Andersson similarly expects a tough challenge, having been drawn against the side that only finished second to a near-perfect Spain in Group I. "We will start now and historically Italian football is good, with good individual players who have been to the world championships before, so they will have good experience," he admitted. "They are a good team, but we will go for it.”
There is also set to be an intriguing reunion when Republic of Ireland take on Denmark. "I know Denmark and the manager Age Hareide, he and I used to play together, so it is going to be an interesting confrontation," Martin O'Neill said of his opposite number.
But, having clinched a nail-biting win to qualify against Wales, he feels it will work in their advantage. "Momentum is very, very important, it was a great win for us – we won our last two games to get here into this position. I’m just concerned now about the next couple of weeks and our players not picking up injuries at club level."
"I would view this as having a second opportunity and that I will be playing in a 180-minute final,” Hierro, who was capped 89 times for Spain, said during the ceremony. "They all know how important it is to make it to the World Cup in Russia. Good luck to them all.”
Qualifying as hosts, Russia have since been joined by France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Iceland, with 23 of the 32 nations now decided for next year’s festival of football.
On top of the four additional European places, the remaining five spots will be decided between 10-15 November, as three sides from Africa are yet to book their tickets, while the intercontinental play-offs will confirm the last two names in the hat for the Final Draw.
That will take place on 1 December in Moscow, where the eight groups will be decided, using pot allocations based on the October edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Pot 1, which is already confirmed, will feature Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland and France.
Fixtures in full (all times local)
Croatia-Greece (Thursday 9 November, 20.45)
Northern Ireland-Switzerland (Thursday 9 November, 19.45)
Sweden-Italy (Friday 10 November, 20.45)
Denmark-Republic of Ireland (Saturday 11 November, 20.45)
Greece-Croatia (Sunday 12 November, 21.45)
Switzerland-Northern Ireland (Sunday 12 November, 18.00)
Italy-Sweden (Monday 13 November 20.45)
Republic of Ireland-Denmark (Tuesday 14 November, 19.45)