The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be at the World Cup in Russia next summer if they can overcome Denmark and Switzerland respectively in the play-offs.
Here, we assess both countries’ chances of punching their ticket to the finals.
Denmark were the lowest-ranked seeded team in the draw so could be considered the best possible opponent for Martin O’Neill’s Republic side to face. They have not lost in over a year, during which time they have drawn with world champions Germany and beaten Poland 4-0, while Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen is in fine fettle. Switzerland only missed out on qualifying directly on goal difference to Portugal having been beaten 2-0 in Lisbon in their final group game last month. Up to that point they had won all nine games, but the psychological blow of seeing their spot taken in the last match is a factor Michael O’Neill is banking on his Northern Ireland side capitalising on.
The Republic are play-off veterans having previously been in this situation seven times. First up for them is a trip to Copenhagen for the first leg on Saturday, meaning the reverse encounter in Dublin takes place on Tuesday. That means Martin O’Neill’s men have the maximum preparation time and the benefit of being the hosts for the all-important second leg. Northern Ireland will entertain the Swiss first at Windsor Park on Thursday before the return fixture in Basel three days later. Having home advantage in the opening contest may actually benefit them given they are built to defend leads rather than chase games.
Pitted in a tricky group with Serbia, Wales and Austria, the Republic looked to be out of it when they went four games without a win. However, back-to-back victories – the last an impressive triumph in Cardiff – have ensured they will enter these two fixtures on a high. Northern Ireland lost their final two qualifiers – to Germany and Norway – though their play-off place was already booked before the last game in Oslo. The Germans are the only team to have won a competitive game at Windsor Park since Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick there in 2013, while they kept seven clean sheets in their 10 group games.
The missing men
The Republic’s momentum has been achieved without Seamus Coleman – the right-back having broken his leg against Wales in March. James McCarthy and Richard Keogh are out, Burnley’s Jonathan Walters will almost certainly not play and club colleague Jeff Hendrick is a doubt. Martin O’Neill will also be without the suspended David Meyler for the first leg. The Northern Irish have had to contend with a spate of injuries in this campaign themselves, but that is easing now with Jamie Ward and Paddy McNair back. Aaron Hughes’ calf complaint may scupper his hopes of being involved, at least in the first leg.
These draws have been kind to both the Republic and Northern Ireland and the two O’Neills will feel confident reaching Russia is not Mission: Impossible. The Republic have a history of delivering big performances in huge games and their play-off pedigree should stand them in good stead. If they can shackle Eriksen, they can progress. Northern Ireland’s fate may hinge on them gaining a positive result in Belfast, where they have to hope the raucous crowd can spook a Swiss team still reeling after missing out on direct qualification.