We want to avoid Italy and Croatia in 'crucial' World Cup draw: Michael O'Neill
Optimistic Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill hopes to avoid European heavyweights Italy and Croatia in today's World Cup play-off draw.
O'Neill's men are just two games away from reaching their first World Cup finals in 32 years and at 1pm in Zurich, Northern Ireland will find out who they play in next month's shoot-out for the right to join the elite at Russia 2018.
Despite reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2016 last year and finishing second during this qualifying campaign behind world champions Germany, Northern Ireland - who moved down to 23rd in the Fifa rankings yesterday - are unseeded for the draw along with the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Greece. That means they will be paired with either four-times winners Italy, Switzerland, Croatia or Denmark.
O'Neill, in Zurich for the draw, insists being selected alongside either the Danes or Swiss gives Northern Ireland the best chance of reaching back-to-back major finals for the first time in Irish FA history.
"Our World Cup starts in November and this draw is going to be crucial," said O'Neill last night.
"You always want to avoid the Italians, we played the Croatians last November and it was a very difficult game. They had some of their key players missing and we played some of our fringe players as well, so it wasn't a true reflection on the two teams. Denmark and Switzerland would certainly provide a stiff test, but out of the four teams we would certainly favour them over Italy or Croatia."
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If they were drawn with Northern Ireland, Croatia would have superstars Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic in their ranks after all three missed their country’s 3-0 victory in Belfast last November.
But O’Neill is adamant a reunion with the Croatians would not be as difficult as facing world champions Germany — something Northern Ireland have done three times over the past 16 months — which O’Neill believes will benefit his players.
He also says Switzerland, who had a 100 per cent record in qualification before losing to Portugal to miss out on top spot, may be affected psychologically by their near miss.
“Croatia have arguably five or six world-class players but, one thing I said to the players is, having played Germany, whoever we get will not be as difficult as that game. Playing Germany recently has to stick in the players’ mind.
“For Denmark, Christian Eriksen plays a big part, the Italians are maybe more of a team unit, very strong defensively and have that experience of knowing how to get through. The Swiss are a bit more unknown. They went through the campaign with nine wins, but are maybe a little bit disappointed coming into these games as they had a chance up until the final game. You just don’t know, mentally that can be difficult.
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“Certainly when I look at Switzerland or Denmark, maybe outside of Eriksen, they don’t have the same level of individual players.
“But the fact we’re in the draw and have the opportunity is fantastic and one we can enjoy.
“We’re the smallest nation in the draw, we’re probably the least-favoured nation, but this team has continued to surprise.”
As well as learning their opponent, Northern Ireland will also discover if they are at Windsor Park in the first or second leg, with a separate draw dictating that variable.
“The key is if you’re away first leg you keep the thing alive, bring things back to Belfast and it gives everyone hope,” O’Neill added.
“To be drawn away (second) is difficult, I haven’t looked how it works that way but it is very difficult as the prize is so great for the home nations in that situation.”