Analysing Ireland's possible play-off opponents

John Fallon breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of Ireland’s potential opponents...

Analysing Ireland's possible play-off opponents

ITALY

Campaign record (finished second to Spain in Group G): P: 10. W: 7: D: 2. L: 1. Pts: 23.

Key player: Lorenzo Insigne.

Reason to be fearful: The Italians always find a way to get to major tournaments. Since missing out in 1958, Italy have featured at every World Cup and they won’t fear Ireland, home or away. Their team remains dominated by players at top Serie A clubs, most with vast experience for club and country.

Reason to be cheerful: They are not the juggernaut of previous generations. Italy failed to get past the group stages of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and were anything but convincing at Euro 2016, despite reaching the quarter-finals. There also seems to be discontent in the camp about coach Gian Piero Ventura’s leadership qualities.

Most recent meeting: June 2016 in Lille - Ireland 1 Italy 0.

Ireland and the Azzurri have a rich history of football battles, stretching back to the 1994 World Cup but their meeting in the final game of the Euros was an encounter for the ages. Antonio Conte fielded an understrength team to rest players for the last-16, allowing Ireland the opportunity of gaining the win needed to join them as one of the best third-placed nations. Robbie Brady’s late winner saw to that.

CROATIA

Campaign record (finished second to Iceland in Group I): P: 10. W: 6: D: 2. L: 2. Pts: 20.

Key player: Luka Modric.

Reason to be fearful: Croatia has a team laced with quality, from Real Madrid star Modric to Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Man Utd target Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan. Everything was on track for the qualification regulars until Iceland defeated them in June, followed soon by another loss to Turkey. They secured an impressive 2-0 win in Ukraine on Monday.

Reason to be cheerful: A combustible second half of the campaign peaked at the weekend when Ante Cacic was sacked to be replaced by the inexperienced Zlatko Dalic. It was evident over the past week the players, especially captain Modric, run the show as their coup ousted the beleaguered boss. On the pitch, they are still reliant on the goals of 31-year-old Mario Mandzukic.

Most recent meeting: June 2012 in Poznan - Ireland 1 Croatia 3.

A Sunday afternoon in Poland began with hope but ended with reality for Giovanni Trapattoni and his players. Failing to get anything from this opener before they met Spain and Italy all but ended Ireland’s Euros and they were thoroughly outclassed by Croatian’s slick game, which could easily have yielded a hiding for Ireland.

DENMARK

Campaign record (finished second to Poland in Group E): P: 10. W: 6: D: 2. L: 2. Pts: 20.

Key player: Christian Eriksen.

Reason to be fearful: A steady rather spectacular performer in recent campaigns, the Danes emerged from a difficult group ahead of Montenegro with the help of a 4-0 hammering of group winners Poland. Between Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, captain Simon Kjaer of Sevilla at the back and Tottenham talisman Eriksen leading the attack, the Scandinavians will present a difficult proposition.

Reason to be cheerful: Youthfulness and inexperience permeates through the team and the presence of elder lemon Nicklas Bendtner shouldn’t concern Ireland too much. Denmark drew their two games against Romania and lost to Montenegro at home. Consistency has proved elusive for them over the campaign.

Most recent meeting: August 2007 in Aarhus - Denmark 0 Ireland 4.

The final highlight of Steve Staunton’s infamous reign came a decade ago when friendlies were played within a week of leagues around Europe kicking off. Bendtner struck the post before Ireland’s strikeforce of Robbie Keane and Shane Long each grabbed a brace. It would recalled as a false dawn. Staunton was sacked eight weeks later.

SWITZERLAND

Campaign record (finished second to Portugal in Group B): P: 10. W: 9: D: 0. L: 1. Pts: 27.

Key player: Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Reason to be fearful: The Swiss went into their final group game against Portugal with nine wins out of nine, their 27 points a full nine more than Ireland’s haul - they only end up in the play-offs on the basis of their 2-0 defeat in Lisbon. They enjoy a stellar track record of qualification too, reaching seven of the last eight tournaments, including three World Cups on the bounce.

Reason to be cheerful: Lots. The Swiss would unquestionably be Ireland’s desired pairing. Possessing no superstars, they have placed unity and togetherness at the root of their success but their shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed by the Portuguese last night. In an evenly-match tie, and playing in far from an intimidating atmosphere of Basel in the away leg, Ireland should fancy their prospects of emerging victorious.

Most recent meeting: March 2016 in Dublin - Ireland 1 Switzerland 0.

Ireland’s first game after clinching a place at the Euros was a turgid affair but settled by Ciaran Clark’s early header. The game was significant from an Irish perspective for launching the central-defensive partnership of Clark and Duffy, with the pair combining for that solitary goal of the friendly. Switzerland’s main contribution was a horrendous tackle by Timm Klose which led to Kevin Doyle getting stretchered off.

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