World Cup playoffs: Ireland’s opponents in their own words

Journalists from Croatia, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland discuss their teams

Croatia midfielder Luka Modric challenges  Finland forward Simon Skrabb during the qualifier in Rijeka at the start of October. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

Croatia midfielder Luka Modric challenges Finland forward Simon Skrabb during the qualifier in Rijeka at the start of October. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

 

Croatia: Vedran Buble of Index.hr

“After the win in Ukraine, everyone believes that Croatia will qualify for the World Cup, although the emotions are divided here. Many in Croatia stopped following the national team because they believe that those who run the football federation, including its president, Davor Šuker, are a sort of mafia that has stolen it away from the people.

There are very mixed feelings. On one hand, people hope that we won’t qualify because then maybe things will change in the federation, but on the other they know it is a great sacrifice not to have your national team at a World Cup, especially with a generation of players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and others.

At the moment, though, Croatia is much more a group of fantastic individuals like these who can single-handedly decide a match than a real football team. That will not change for the playoffs, no matter how much the new national coach, Zlatko Dalic, tries.

And Dalic is another topic for a debate here. Did he deserve a chance to manage the team? Yes! Is he good enough to deal with world class players? No! Is he a puppet coach for the people who run the federation? Very possibly!

As for Ireland, most Croatians love it as a country and we grew up watching legends such as Tony Cascarino, Pat Bonner, Steve Staunton etc. The Irish team now is not nearly as good as it was and the feeling here would be that Croatia has much more talent. It might be a big problem, though, to play against such a passionate team that is exploding with energy and effort. 

Nobody here wants Greece. They are regarded as an unlucky team for us. Between the others there is not much difference, as we are talking about the classical Nordic football, with a lot of aggression, bravery, covered miles and dangerous set-pieces.”

Denmark: Stefan Christensen of Ekstra Bladet

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring a goal during the qualifier against Romania in Copenhagen. Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/AFP/Getty Images
Denmark’s Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring a goal during the qualifier against Romania in Copenhagen. Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/AFP/Getty Images

“There is a good feeling in Denmark about these playoffs and some excitement perhaps already about the possibility of being back at a World Cup after some difficult campaigns. Of course, being seeded is an important part of that and nobody doubts how important it was to avoid teams like Italy and Croatia.

“It has been an interesting period for the Danish team. After the years of possession football under Morten Olsen, the current coach, Åge Hareide, changed to a more direct, physical style for the last four games and it worked. Nobody really expected that we could beat Poland 4-0 at home after losing there but the team finished the campaign strongly and while it is not as good as some of the Danish sides from the past, now people believe in it again.

Hareide has used three strikers in these recent games with two big men, Andreas Cornelius of Atalanta and Feyenoord’s Nicolai Jorgensen becoming key players for the coach along with the much smaller Pione Sisto. Others have played their part with Thomas Delaney getting three goals in Armenia but Christian Eriksen is by far the most important of all with the Tottenham midfielder picking up many of the loose balls from the play in front of him and scoring a lot of important goals.

Eriksen has had some some difficult times with the national team during his career but over these 10 games he has been back to his best and the team will need him to perform well in the playoffs. Without him the outlook for the team would be very different.

If he and the team plays well then I think the expectation would be that Denmark can go to the World Cup, although there would be a feeling that Ireland would be a tough opponent and that it would be better to play Northern Ireland or Greece.”

Italy: Elmar Bergonzini of Gazzetta dello Sport

Italy’s Ciro Immobile in action during the qualifier against Macedonia at the Grande Torino Stadium in Turin. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
Italy’s Ciro Immobile in action during the qualifier against Macedonia at the Grande Torino Stadium in Turin. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

“This is not a great Italy team and that is something that the players themselves have had to come to terms with over the course of the campaign. The captain, Gianluigi Buffon, admitted it after we lost 3-0 in Spain. Before that, I think that the opinion here of what could be achieved was higher.

Part of the problem is the tactics. The coach Gian Piero Ventura does not try to have the team play to the strengths of his players. If you take the example of Ciro Immobile, he was the team’s top scorer for Italy in the group stages but for his club, Lazio, he scores a goal every 59 minutes recently, for the national team he has scored one in his last five games.

The difference is that Lazio play with two players centrally behind him while Italy have a striker either side but Immobile is not such a good header of the ball. You need to play vertically to him not with crosses and so he is not nearly so effective when he plays for his country.

There have been problems in defence too. This is not a team that has players like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini or Alessandro Nesta. Of course, there are very good players but Leonardo Bonucci is not playing so well right now, either for Milan or Italy. This, though, is just a temporary thing, I think, and hopefully he will be back to his best for the playoffs.

I don’t think anyone here wants to play Ireland. They remember the defeats over the years, most recently in France, and know that for us they are a difficult team.

The feeling is that in games like playoffs, Ireland are tough defensively, that maybe it will be difficult to score against them and then there can be problems; better for us to play a more offensive team.”

Switzerland: Thomas Schifferle of Tages Anzeiger

Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri in action during the qualifier against Hungary at St Jakob-Park stadium in Basel. Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA
Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri in action during the qualifier against Hungary at St Jakob-Park stadium in Basel. Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA

“It had been a good campaign for Switzerland before they travelled to Lisbon for their last game and the best that you can say about the defeat there is that perhaps it will be a wake-up call for a side that is not quite as good as the players believed.

This was not such a tough qualification group and against the lesser sides Switzerland have looked very good, sometimes threatening to score a lot of goals. In the win over Hungary they got five but it could easily have been more and so as the team prepared for the crucially important game against Portugal a few days later, they believed they were ready for it. It turned out that they were wrong and the question now is whether they are mentally strong enough to win in the playoffs.

There are quite a few talented players in the team – Stephan Lichtsteiner, the captain, the goalkeeper Yann Sommer, Granit Xhaka – but perhaps only one that you can look to do something special in any game, Xherdan Shaqiri. He is our Ronaldo, you might say, except Portugal’s Ronaldo plays at Real Madrid and ours plays at Stoke City. There is, of course, a reason for that.

Still, the team can impress at times. Under the previous coach the first objective was not to lose but Vladimir Petkovic has changed the philosophy, he wants the team to win games by passing the ball and while it has taken time to achieve, you can see the evidence of his work through this campaign.

The worry is that it is a good team but only on a certain level and perhaps it cannot perform on the biggest nights, like the one in Lisbon. Ireland’s mentality would be a concern – I think Greece would be a better option for the Swiss – but whoever the opponents are, it will be a time for the group to prove themselves.”

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