The United States may have missed the bus this time, but there are still opportunities in play for a spot in next summer’s World Cup in Russia. In Europe, big guns like France, Spain, Germany and England have already punched their tickets, however, a number of the continent’s big tournament regulars, including four-time World Cup champions Italy, are still on the outside staring in.
As we head into the final playoff round for UEFA qualifying, it’s last chance saloon for the eight teams left in contention. By this time next week, four will have booked their passage to Russia, and the other four will be free to book an extended beach holiday in the destination of their choice. Here’s all the action to watch for:
Italy vs. Sweden
The current crop of the Azzurri might be some distance below the level of the team that beat France in the 2006 final, but it’s hard to imagine the possibility of a World Cup without Italy. But a first World Cup without Italy since 1958 is exactly the scenario we’ll be looking at should Gian Piero Ventura’s team fail to get the job done against Sweden.
Italy finished five points behind Spain in Group G and will face a formidable Swedish team that pipped the Netherlands for a playoff spot. Ventura has called up 27 players for the two-match series that will see the teams face off in Stockholm on Friday with a return leg in Milan on Monday.
The Italian team features several familiar faces, including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, midfielders Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Insigne, as well as forwards Ciro Immobile and Stephan El Shaarawy. Also included in the squad is striker Simone Zaza who has overcome a bad spell at West Ham and an embarrassing penalty miss at Euro 2016 by revitalizing his career at Valencia where his nine goals in 11 appearances put him just behind Lionel Messi in the La Liga scoring standings. One notable absence is Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, who despite his good form in Major League Soccer, continues to be snubbed by his national team.
Standing in Italy’s way is a Sweden side that edged out the Dutch to finish just behind France in Group A. Despite the international retirement of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedes put together in impressive qualifying run that included a win over favorites France. And, while Italy has the pedigree and the greater pool of talent, the two-legged tie will be anything but a walkover for an Italian team still some way off from reclaiming a place among the continent’s best.
Watch Sweden vs. Italy on Friday, November 10 at 2:30pm ET on Fox Sports 1 and again on Monday, November 13 at 2:30pm ET on Fox Sports 1.
Republic of Ireland vs. Denmark
The Republic of Ireland narrowly missed out on automatic qualification, finishing just two points behind Serbia in Group D. Ireland has been described as a scrappy side, they don’t play silky, sumptuous football, but they get results. Lest we forget, they beat out a star-studded Wales team for a spot in the playoffs.
But, it remains to be seen how far one can go riding plucky underdog status when you’re about to come up against a team like Denmark. The Danes lost out on automatic qualification to Poland in Group E, but with a pedigree in big tournaments and established talent like Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen and Ajax duo, Lass Schone and Kasper Dolberg, Denmark are as formidable a team as any in the playoffs, barring Italy.
With their colorful fans, plucky attitude and scrappy performances, Ireland bring a lot to major tournaments. But it will be a steep hill for Martin O’Neil’s side to climb if we are to see Ireland in Russia next summer.
Watch Denmark vs. Ireland Saturday, November 11 at 2:30pm ET on Fox Sports 2 and again on Tuesday, November 14 at 2:30pm ET on Fox Sports 2
Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Switzerland finished dead even with Portugal in Group B, however, an inferior goal differential means the Swiss will contend for a playoff spot against Northern Ireland. Having won nine out of 10 matches in their group, it would be a bit harsh on the Swiss not to reach the finals. Having appeared in the last three World Cups, and with their stellar qualifying record, the Swiss are obvious favorites.
Standing in their way is a Northern Ireland side that was among the darlings of last summer’s European Championship. While the Northern Irish, and everyone else in Group C, finished a country mile behind group leaders (and World Cup holders) Germany, this is a team that continues to punch above its weight. Although Michael O’Neill’s team finished behind Germany, they did beat out the Czech Republic and Norway for a spot in the playoffs.
Last year, Northern Ireland surprised everyone by making the Euros and then by exceeding expectations once they got there. While the Swiss look the more likely, it’s just possible Northern Ireland have one more surprise up their sleeve.
Watch Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland on Thursday, November 9 at 2:30pm ET on ESPN2 and again Sunday, November 12 at 12:00pm ET on ESPNews.
Croatia vs. Greece
Greece came second in Group H, nearly 10 points behind everyone’s favorite “dark horse” Belgium. A far cry from the team that upset the footballing order by winning Euro 2014, the Greeks plodded through qualifying and benefited from an otherwise weak group.
Croatia also underwhelmed in qualifying and finished second in Group I, behind Iceland. Part of the problem for Croatia lies in the disarray they are going through as a footballing nation with the national association in disarray and manager Ante Cacic sacked last month.
But with world-class talents in the side, like midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and striker Mario Mandzukic, Croatia should have what it takes to get past a very ordinary Greek side and secure a place in next summer’s finals.
Watch Croatia vs. Greece Thursday, November 9 at 2:30pm ET on ESPN Deportes and again Saturday November 12 at 2:30pm ET on ESPNews.