The Irish Route to Russia is Complicated

The Irish Route to Russia is Complicated

The Emerald Isle is hoping to witness some ‘luck of the Irish’ this week as their two national teams begin a tense 180-minute play-off quest, with the reward for victory a place at next summer’s World Cup Finals.

What are their prospects of making it to Russia? Our football odds expert Adrian Clarke gives us the lowdown…

N Ireland v Switzerland | 9 Nov 19:45

There are no visible barricades in the Northern Ireland goalmouth at their revamped Windsor Park home, but for opponents, it often feels like there is.

Roared on by a passionate fan base that seems to blow the ball away from their own net, it’s now almost 18 months since Michael O’Neill’s stubborn outfit conceded there in a competitive fixture.

In fact, the last team to breach them in a Belfast qualifier were world champions Germany. So clean sheets really are the lifeblood of this Irish side.

With this in mind, you can guarantee their focus will be as much on ensuring Switzerland are shut out on Thursday night, as it is taking a lead to Basel for the return leg.

They may not confess it, but I suspect O’Neill and his boys would take a 0-0 draw if it was offered (13/2) and with that in mind, the Under 1.5 goals market has to be regarded as an appealing one at 8/5.

Northern Ireland’s defence is fabulous, but going forward they struggle and their momentum has been lost a little ahead of this clash.

Early qualification for the playoffs allowed them to take their foot off the gas with two matches to spare, but inconsequential defeats to Germany and Norway won’t have helped the mindset.

Can they regain their mojo for the match that really matters?

I really hope so, but I do make them underdogs against a Switzerland team that shouldn’t really have to take the play-off route.

They won nine of their ten group games, but a loss to Portugal in their final outing means the Swiss could still miss out – which, to be frank, would be a travesty.

While Northern Ireland have bags of heart and are expertly organised by O’Neill, I just fear a lack of quality in forward areas will leave them falling short. It places too much pressure on the rear guard to hold firm.

Talents like Shaqiri, Lichsteiner, Xhaka and Rodriguez have helped ensure Switzerland score goals home and away, and their record on the road is excellent; winning five, drawing one and losing one since the summer of 2016.

You won’t get rich backing Switzerland or the Draw at 7/20 but I am afraid I don’t see the visitors losing this encounter.

My top picks would be Xherdan Shaqiri to score anytime at 14/5 or the 0-1 victory for Switzerland, which is currently priced up at 23/4.

Holding out for a clean sheet is a risky game to play against opponents with as many potential match winners as the Swiss.

Denmark v Republic of Ireland | 11 Nov 19:45

The Danes haven’t lost in over a year so this tie will challenge Martin O’Neill’s battlers over two legs of high-stakes international football.

Copenhagen will be bristling with anticipation.

The feel-good factor has returned to the national team, who have been inspired at opposite ends of the pitch by Premier League stars Kasper Schmeichel and Christian Eriksen during the qualification phase.

They are central to everything the side do, and worryingly for the Irish, Spurs hero, Eriksen has netted in each of his last six matches for Denmark. He’s a 9/4 shot to score anytime on Saturday.

Across the technical area, there will plenty of friendly rivalry too.

O’Neill played with Denmark gaffer Åge Hareide at Manchester City and Norwich City, and both are experts at motivating their players.

While I don’t expect this to be the prettiest of ties, neither side will leave too much in the dressing room.

To me, it’s an advantage for Ireland to play away first, and after going to Wales and winning last time out, they will regard themselves as ready for whatever the hosts throw at them.

But the Danes’ superb 4-0 win at home to Poland is a marker they should be wary of. On their day, when everything clicks, Hareide’s boys can be an exciting, formidable side.

They start matches quickly too. In five of their last six matches, the Scandinavians have scored first, so the Denmark/Denmark forecast is one to consider at 19/10.

History tells us the Irish know how to raise their game for the big occasion, and in a match play situation like this O’Neill is a master tactician; but based on form and personnel I have to lean towards the hosts on home turf, who will play with pace and passion.

My tip is a 2-0 win for Denmark at 13/2, but if you want to add a slice of value I’d consider Eriksen to score in a 2-0 success, which is priced up at a generous 15/1.

My hunch is that the Republic will have it all to do when they resume the rivalry in Dublin – but they won’t be out of the tie.

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