The 2018 World Cup in Russia will again see 14 teams play from Europe after 12 long years.
While the hosts Russia and the 9 group winners have already booked their places in next summer’s show piece event, the last 4 spots are still up for grabs. The 8 best second placed teams pitted against one another via lottery will be battling out for the last four places. The matches are:
Northern Ireland vs Switzerland
Croatia vs Greece
Sweden vs Italy
Denmark vs Republic of Ireland
Here we look at 4 players from each side who will be crucial in deciding the matches in their respective teams’ favour(s).
Aaron Hughes: The Northern Ireland defender is his country’s most capped outfield player and second overall. Despite injury concerns, it is hoped that the 37-year old legend will once again be leading the Norn Iron back-line in their quest to reach their first World Cup finals in 32 years.
Steven Davis: The Northern Ireland skipper has been a regular at St. Mary’s for the past 6 seasons with 177 caps to his name. The Northern Irishman with the third most caps for his national team, will be tasked with marshalling the midfield against the Swiss when he wears the Green and White shirt for the 100th time.
Kyle Lafferty: The 30-year old forward is Northern Ireland’s second highest goal scorer of all time and highest in the current squad. The former Rangers, Palermo and Norwich City forward will once again spearhead the attack for Michael O’Neill’s men in the play-offs.
Josh Magennis: The Charlton Athletic forward was his country’s joint top scorer in the qualifiers alongside his strike partner Lafferty. He’ll also be joining the front-line for the British nation in the double legged tie.
Stephan Lichtsteiner: The 33-year old Juventus full back will be leading a very talented Swiss side in quest to reach their 4th straight world cup finals. He’ll also be tasked to make his trademark runs down the right flank to create havoc in the Northern Irish defence.
Granit Xhaka: The Albanian born Arsenal midfielder is the best bet for Vladimir Petković’s men for the battle at the centre of the park. He will also be expected to produce some of his trademark long range screamers against the Northern Irish.
Xherdan Shaqiri: The Stoke City midfielder (termed as the “Alpine Messi”) is considered to be the greatest Swiss footballer by many. The immensely talented player will be La Nati’s best bet to get through the Northern Ireland challenge.
Haris Seferović: The S.L. Benfica forward was Switzerland’s highest scorer in the UEFA qualifying group A with 4 goals. The 25-year old will be spearheading the attack for the 2014 World Cup pre-quarter finalists in the European play-offs.
Domagoj Vida: The 28-year old versatile defender has been a regular at Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev for 5 seasons. Blessed with the ability to take on any defensive role, he will be tasked with leading the troops from the back.
Luka Modrić: The 3-times UEFA Champions League winner with Real Madrid will be The Blazers’ midfield general. The fans will hope that the 3-times member of the FIFA World XI, will be leading the Croatian golden generation into yet another world cup.
Ivan Perišić: The Inter Milan winger is one of the world’s most sought after players. Known for his tireless work rate, pin point crossing, excruciating runs down the flanks and scoring prowess at regular intervals(occasionally with pile-drivers), Zlatko Dalić will be counting on the 28-year old all round.
Mario Mandžukić: The Juventus forward is Croatia’s second on the list of all time top scorers and will be the leading the front-line for the former Yugoslav nation.
Vasilis Torosidis: The Bologna full back became the first ever defender to reach double digits in goals for Greece. The 32-year old skipper will be charged with the duty of stopping Ivan Perišić during the two legged tie.
Kostas Manolas: The AS Roma defender is one of the toughest stopper backs in the world. One of the main reasons for Roma’s defensive strength this season, the 26-year old will be Piratiko’s main man to stop the mighty Croats.
Andreas Samaris: The S.L. Benfica central midfielder will be battling it out against Luka Modrić at the centre of the field and his success will highly reflect Greece’s chances of reaching their third consecutive world cup finals.
Kostas Mitroglou: The Olympique de Marseille forward is the 8th in the list of their all time goal scoring chart and the top in the current squad. Michael Skibbe will be counting heavily on the former Fulham man to deliver in front of the goal.
Photo by apasciuto