The European road to the Russia 2018 World Cup takes its final turn over the next few days with eight hopeful teams still left. Four will find the correct path while the others will make a u-turn and head back home. Let’s take a look at the fixtures and my usually woeful predictions.
Croatia (18) vs Greece (47)
The Greek team has always been staunch defenders with not much firepower up front. Usually prevailing with a 1-0 scoreline. When I say lack of offence, I really mean lack of offence. I read somewhere (theScore actually) that even Georgia registered more shots than Greece did during Round 1 of the qualifying stage. So what was a difficult challenge for the Greeks, just got worse as they lost 4-1 on the road to Croatia. This means that during the second leg back in Greece on Sunday, the home team will need a 3-0 win to advance. Greece beating Croatia is a possibility. Greece scoring 3 goals however is not. The last time Greece scored plenty of goals was in qualifying against Gibraltar. Gibraltar is ranked 209th out of 211 registered countries.
Switzerland (11) vs Northern Ireland (23)
You have to feel for Switzerland. This is a team that had as many points as Portugal as well as a 1-1 record against them during qualifying where the home team won 2-0 in both games. They didn’t book their ticket directly to Russia however because the Portuguese had a better goal differential. Their luck got worse for Round 2 as although they are the highest ranked team on the seeded side, they drew Northern Ireland which is the highest ranked of the non seeded teams. Go figure. True to form though, they did win the first leg 1-0 in Belfast which is a great result on the road. The penalty shot was scored by Ricardo Rodriguez (love that pure Swiss name eh?) in the 58th minute.
Denmark (19) vs Republic of Ireland (26)
On paper this should be the most evenly matched up series and hopefully will be as entertaining. Their home and home starts Saturday, November 11th in Copenhagen and it concludes in Dublin on the 14th. Despite the edge going to the Danes, Ireland does have a great opportunity to advance. A nil-nil or 1-1 draw in Denmark, even a 2-1 loss in the first leg would be an excellent result. If the Irish can start the second leg only needing a 1-0 win, they just might very well pull off the upset. Unless of course, there is another “hand of god” goal scored against them like Thierry Henry did a few years back. I think this time we finally get to see the Irish on the good side luck. Plus, Irish fans will make Russia 2018 a lot more fun than Danish Fans. Sorry… but it is true.
Italy (15) vs Sweden (25)
I know I have criticized the Italians throughout qualifying. I still believe they deserved it. I know I have questioned Gian Piero Ventura’s lineup. Even after some recent changes, I still don’t like it. I don’t however blame the Azzurri for being in this position as there is nothing shameful in finishing second in a group that has Spain in it. What worries me is that after getting spanked 3-0 by the Spaniards, they have played awful. The 4 time World Champions beat Israel and Albania by the slimmest of 1-0 margins and couldn’t even manage that against Macedonia, tying them 1-1 in Italy. The worst part of these 4 matches is that these have been their last 4 matches. They have shown no signs of improvement and there is no safety net anymore as a single mistake could cost them missing only their second ever World Cup.
Congratulations on a fantastic career Andrea Pirlo!
— Italy (@azzurri) November 8, 2017
Sweden doesn’t seem to be as imposing as they once were since Zlatan Ibrahimovic has retired from international play. Honestly, I think this hurts the Italians more than it helps. Italy usually can rise to a challenge but conversely, they can drop their level of play against minnows as they have shown. If Italy goes into Sweden thinking they just have to show up to win, this will be one of the most embarrassing defeats in history. I don’t believe it will come to that but even though I believe Italy will win the series, I know I will hate every minute of it. Weird eh? Coming from someone who wants Italy to win it all.
Pick: Italy (but also picking my loss of hair, my loss of voice and plenty of Pepto Bismol for 90 minutes of a continuous upset stomach… for each game)
» Sports » European Road to World Cup