Mon | Nov 20, 2017

Italy to face Sweden in WCup play-offs

Published:Wednesday | October 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Former Spanish player Fernando Hierro draws Italy against Sweden at the FIFA World Cup European play-off draw at the headquarters of FIFA in Zurich yesterday.

ZURICH (AP):

Four-time champions Italy will have to beat Sweden in a European play-off to qualify for their 15th straight World Cup.

A regular at every World Cup since 1958, the Italians were drawn yesterday to play in Sweden in the first leg of the play-off on November 10.

"A World Cup without Italy isn't a World Cup," said Italy team manager Gabriele Oriali, representing coach Gian Piero Ventura at the draw at FIFA headquarters.

Still, Oriali who played on Italy's 1982 winning team cautioned that "history and tradition don't go out on to the pitch".

In other pairings, it was: Northern Ireland vs Switzerland; Croatia vs Greece; and Denmark vs Ireland. The first legs will be played from November 9-11, with the return games from November 12-14.

The four winners will enter the World Cup draw on December 1 at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Sweden got the opponents which coaches of the other three unseeded teams all said they wanted to avoid.

"If it's worst or easiest or whatever, it doesn't matter today because it's Italy we're going to play," Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.

Four years ago, Sweden also got a tough draw and were eliminated by Cristiano Ronaldo's three second-leg goals for Portugal in Stockholm.

 

HIGHEST-RANKED TEAM

 

Switzerland were the highest-ranked team in the draw, and won nine straight games in qualifying until a final and decisive loss to Portugal this month.

"I feel their qualification group was possibly one of the easier groups," Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill said. "It's a game I believe we can win."

Ireland coach Martin O'Neill said he was also pleased to avoid Croatia's "star-studded side" to play a Denmark team coached by Age Hareide, a former teammate 35 years ago.

Martin O'Neill picked out Christian Eriksen, the inform Tottenham playmaker, as a danger ahead of a first leg in Copenhagen.

"If you consider the Danish run just recently, he has masterminded nearly all their proceedings," Martin O'Neill said.

Croatia and Greece, which both came through play-offs to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, could generate the most heated atmosphere of the four pairings.

"There is a great rivalry between both countries," said Michael Skibbe, the German coach of Greece, who said his team's style of tough defence and counter-attacks matched well with Croatia's stylish midfield.