World Cup qualifying preview – first legs

The European World Cup qualifying play-offs get underway on Thursday with Northern Ireland hosting Switzerland in their first leg.

The Northern Irish finished runners-up to Germany in their group whilst the Swiss lost out to Portugal, and Michael O’Neill’s men are now looking to qualify for the second major tournament in succession after featuring at Euro 2016.

Northern Ireland have not been to a World Cup finals since 1986, but hopes are high they can seal a place in Russia.

“This squad has evolved and has come through some bad times and learned from them,” said O’Neill.

“For some players, this may be their last opportunity and if they get to Russia it will be extremely well deserved.

“The one thing I would say to them is don’t fear the situation, embrace it and make sure, whatever happens, when you look back there are no regrets.”

Also opening their account on Friday is Croatia and Greece, with the first-leg in Zagreb, whilst Sweden host Italy on Saturday.

Republic of Ireland do not play until Sunday when they travel to Copenhagen to tackle Denmark.

Assistant boss Roy Keane is expecting a big reaction from the squad.

“When there’s been big questions put to the players, they’ve come up with the answers,” Keane said.

“They’ve bounced back from disappointing results against Scotland and Serbia in the last two campaigns. They’ll need to do that again on Saturday because we’ll be under pressure, under the cosh and challenged in different ways.

“Denmark have a lot of skilful players, good options going forward and Eriksen is a really big player for them. They’re big and strong, have good experience, energy and legs in the team. It will be tough.”

See below for a run-down on the games, including predictions and picks from former England international midfielder Andy Gray, our own Football Insider Graeme Bailey and BoyleSports’s Leon Blanche.

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Northern Ireland 19:45 Switzerland
Windsor Park, Belfast

KEY FACT: First competitive match between the two nations
MATCH ODDS: N.Ireland 3/1 Draw 2/1 Swiss 6/5
I can see Northern Ireland claiming a narrow first leg advantage…2-1
Have to go with the Windsor Park crowd, home win…2-0
BOYLESPORTS PICK: Northern Ireland win @3/1
FOOTBALLIndex – One to follow: Granit Xhaka is available at just 61p

Croatia 19:45 Greece
Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb

KEY FACT: Croatia unbeaten in 11 competitive home games
MATCH ODDS: Croatia 2/5 Draw 3/1 Greece 9/1 
Tough call, like a lot of these games so think it might be a draw this one…1-1
Have to go home win, think Croatia could do all the hard work here…3-0
BOYLESPORTS PICK: Croatia -1 @5/4
FOOTBALLIndex – One to follow: Ivan Perisic is a big talent, but not at a big price at just over £1

Sweden 19:45 Italy
Friends Arena, Stockholm

KEY FACT: Sweden have lost once in eight home matches with Italy
MATCH ODDS: Sweden 9/4 Draw 21/10 Italy 13/10
Not the Italy of old, think Sweden might get a draw being at home…1-1
I think Italy might just claim this one, but will be close…1-2 
FOOTBALLIndex – One to follow: Lorenzo Insigne is in top-20 on the Index, a top player

Denmark 19:45 Republic of Ireland
Parken, Copenhagen

KEY FACT: Danes have lost one of last eight competitive home matches
MATCH ODDS: Denmark 3/4 Draw 12/5 Republic 9/2
I can see Denmark getting the win here and being too strong for Ireland…2-0
GRAEME SAYS: I think Christian Eriksen could be the difference…3-1
BOYLESPORTS PICK: Score draw @4/1
FOOTBALLIndex – One to follow: Christian Eriksen at under £2 – bargain

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