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Ranking the European World Cup play-off hopefuls

Who’s well-placed to make it to Russia?

The World Cup qualifying group stage is now complete and 23 teams have sealed their place in Russia next year.  

There are still nine slots up for grabs, with four of those reserved for teams from Europe. The eight best second-placed sides in the UEFA qualifying campaign will face a two-legged play-off for the chance to make it to the World Cup.

Switzerland, Italy, Denmark and Croatia are seeded because they have the four highest FIFA rankings. Sweden, Northern Ireland, Greece and the Republic of Ireland are unseeded.

But which side is really the best? The Coral News Team have ranked all eight European sides in the play-offs.

1) Italy

Italy would probably have qualified automatically if they didn’t have the misfortune of being drawn in the same group as Spain. Their sole defeat was a 3-0 loss to a Spain side in sensational form last month.

The Azzurri can still call on the rock-solid backline of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini ahead of Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Marco Verratti should be fit when the play-off comes around, while Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile add a cutting edge going forward.

2) Croatia

Croatia sacked Ante Cacic before their final group game against Ukraine after a run of four points from four games. They had to beat Ukraine to get into the play-offs and the gamble paid off with a 2-0 away win.

Any side that can call on Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic carries a serious threat. The Croatians also conceded just four goals during qualifying. And they didn’t let in more than a single goal in any game.

3) Switzerland

Switzerland are seventh in the FIFA rankings and won nine of their group fixtures. The only defeat came against Portugal in the final game, which knocked them out of top spot and into the play-offs.

Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are their most notable players but most potential opponents will feel like they have a chance against Switzerland. Their FIFA ranking is partly down to a forgiving qualification group and a lack of friendlies (which can have a negative impact on a side’s ranking). It remains to be seen how they’ll perform with the pressure on.

4) Sweden

Sweden may not be able to call on Zlatan Ibrahimovic anymore but they’re still a team to avoid. They beat France and are a solid, well-organised side. Marcus Berg also bagged eight goals during qualification.

Other than the return game against France, their only other losses were a 3-2 defeat against Bulgaria and a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands when they were virtually guaranteed a play-off place.

5) Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland had an excellent qualification campaign built on resilient defending. They’d only conceded two goals before the last round of fixtures, when they lost to Germany and Norway.

Michael O’Neill’s side are fairly limited going forward. But they’ll be very hard to break down. In a tight play-off, they could nick a goal and hold out to go through.

6) Denmark

Denmark have a decent squad, with Kasper Schmeichel in goal and Simon Kjaer leading the backline. Pione Sisto and Yussuf Poulsen provide some excitement going forward. And Andreas Cornelius is a decent striker but hardly prolific.

But in midfield they have a genuine star in Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker scored eight goals in qualifying and can control a game with his intelligent passing and movement.

7) Republic of Ireland

Ireland’s crucial win over Wales secured their play-off place. They may not have any top-class individuals but they are a real team.

And under Martin O’Neill, they’ve developed a habit of winning big matches. They’ve beaten Germany, Bosnia, Italy and now Wales in must-win games in recent years. O’Neill’s side will fancy their chances against any opposition.

8) Greece

The lowest ranked team at 47, Greece would probably be most team’s ideal play-off opponents. Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas give them real strength in central defence. However there isn’t much creativity further forward.

Kostas Mitroglou is their biggest threat but the striker hasn’t played a league game since joining Marseille.

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