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'Tense' Switzerland boss rubbishes favourites tag as he says World Cup play-off is 50:50

By Jim Gracey

Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic has dismissed his side's favourites tag in next month's World Cup finals play-off against Northern Ireland.

Instead, Petkovic has rated Swiss chances as 50-50 over the two legs at Windsor Park on Thursday, November 9 and three days later in Basel.

Bookmakers and world football pundits immediately made Switzerland favourites to reach next summer's finals in Russia following Tuesday's play-off draw in Zurich.

Odds of 4/11 for Switzerland and 2/1 for Northern Ireland over the two legs are typical.

But Petkovic has insisted on calling it evens in a hint suggesting Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill's questioning of his opponents' mental toughness may have hit the target.

O'Neill had questioned the psychological impact on Switzerland of missing out on automatic qualification at the final hurdle in a 2-0 defeat by Portugal after looking certainties from nine previous wins in a row.

Petkovic urged caution in the Swiss media, who described his mood as tense, saying: "I estimate our chances of progress as 50-50."

And significantly, he referred back to the Portugal setback, adding: "We have to forget everything that has happened in recent months.

"Everything starts again at zero."

Petkovic clearly hasn't forgotten, as O'Neill sensed when he insisted his team would test the Swiss mentally in Belfast.

One commentator in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper wrote of the manager's discomfort with the favourites tag: "Perhaps it is because of this expectation that Petkovic was more tense after the draw than could have been expected - because he instinctively feels he should not fail, not against opponents whose last World Cup was in 1986. And also one which plays a typical British style with high balls, a lot of strength and who have been surprisingly successful."

And while O'Neill has successfully sidestepped speculation linking him with the Scotland job, rival Petkovic is facing the distraction of intense Italian media interest in the Bosnian national as the front runner to become the next manager of AC Milan.

Belfast Telegraph

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