19:45 GMT, Thursday 9th November, Windsor Park (Belfast, Northern Ireland), Sky Sports
17:00 GMT, Sunday 12th November, St. Jakob-Park (Basel, Switzerland), Sky Sports
Northern Ireland are vying to qualify for a first World Cup in 32 years when they face Switzerland over two play-off legs. After the success of qualifying for their first ever European Championships a year ago, progress to next year’s tournament in Russia would be the nation’s first ever back-to-back qualification for major international tournaments.
Switzerland won their opening nine qualification matches but a final day defeat against Portugal in Lisbon ensured they had to settle for a playoff spot.
Both sides have lost momentum, then, after securing top two finishes with two full matches remaining in their groups, but who can triumph over two legs?
Last time out
Norway 1-0 Northern Ireland (World Cup qualifying group)
Michael O’Neill’s side went down to a somewhat surprising defeat in what was a dull and uneventful encounter. With Scotland’s 2-2 draw with Slovenia earlier in the day guaranteeing the Green and White Army a spot in November’s playoff, the match consisted of visiting players desperately trying to avoid yellow cards and injuries.
Chris Brunt’s late own goal decided the tie following an initial error from goalkeeper Michael McGovern. Late in stoppage time, Saint-Etienne forward Alexander Soderlund thought he’d grabbed a second for the Norwegians but he was unfortunate to have been incorrectly flagged offside.
Portugal 2-0 Switzerland (World Cup qualifying group)
An own goal from Johan Djourou and a strike from Andre Silva either side of the break was enough for the European champions to seal their place in next summer’s World Cup and ensure the Swiss would have to rely on a playoff. On the way to losing their 100% record in qualifying, the visitors were limp and were deservedly beaten, testing home goalkeeper Rui Patricio just once.
Vladimir Petkovic’s decision to play both Haris Seferovic and Admir Mehmedi did not pay off with Portugal dominating possession and controlling the game from start to finish. The result ensured Switzerland finished with a record number of points in a group without qualifying automatically.
Northern Ireland Lineup
Michael O’Neil has been boosted by the return to fitness of striker Jamie Ward and defender Paddy McNair. A calf injury ruled Ward out for most of the qualifying stage, while McNair recently returned to domestic action after 11 months out, although neither are expected to start.
Jonny Evans has been deemed fit after overcoming a groin injury while brother Corry should start ahead of George Saville.
Central defender Johan Djorou and Francois Moubandje are both unavailable for the visitors, who are once more likely to opt for a 4-4-2 formation. Premier League based duo Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are both likely to start in central areas.
Key battle: Steven Davis v Granit Xhaka
Northern Ireland’s captain is also their most influential player, pulling the strings from the middle of the pitch and providing a calmness in possession. The Southampton midfielder will win his 100th cap on the night – with ten international goals to his name – and if the visitors allow him time on the ball, Northern Ireland will feel they’ve got half a chance.
Granit Xhaka has been much-maligned since his £30m move to Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016 with his performances and attitude frequently questioned. Criticised for being rash and temperamental, his role on Thursday in holding the Swiss side together will be key. Up against Davis, he will be responsible for solidifying a busy central area of the pitch. Xhaka has the natural talent to do well enough but will have to contend with a passionate home crowd and keep his cool.
This is Northern Ireland’s first ever playoff in its modernised format and gives them the opportunity of qualifying for their first World Cup finals since 1986 in Argentina. The match in the new-look Windsor Park is a sellout and, despite being the underdogs, fan expectation is high. The defeat to world champions Germany last month was their first home loss in over four years and the ground has become a fortress.
Holding home advantage first may actually benefit Michael O’Neill’s side, who are much better at holding and preserving a lead than they are to chasing one. They will be hopeful of a positive result to take into the match in Basel on Sunday.
Can the Swiss bounce back?
Switzerland’s defeat in Lisbon ended a run of ten straight victories and a total of 15 matches unbeaten across all competitions including the 2016 European Championships. The Swiss were defeated on penalties by Poland in an uneventful tournament for them, following up a 1-0 opening win over Albania with draws against both Romania and an already-qualified France.
No side has ever won 27 points in a European qualification game and failed to qualify and the Swiss failure to do so will still be in the minds of the players. They are favourites for the tie but will have to overcome recent disappointment. A defeat or scoreless draw in Belfast could see them struggle to come back on home soil.
Prediction: Northern Ireland 3-3 Switzerland on aggregate [Switzerland win in extra time]
Michael O’Neill’s men are particularly strong at home and a sellout home crowd, along with a fresh and first-choice starting line-up, should be enough to see them over the line at Windsor Park. Their opponents will be desperate to avoid defeat, though, and they will be aware whoever has a lead for the game in Basel will be at a huge advantage. Expect the return fixture to go to extra time with the home team having just enough to pull through on the night.
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