Roy Keane ‘not overly worried’ about Jeff Hendrick’s fitness for Republic play-off
BBC coverage
Live radio commentary on 5 live and online of Northern Ireland v Switzerland (Thurs, 19:45 GMT)
Live text commentaries on the BBC Sport website of all four European play-off ties

Eight European nations. Four spots left at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia. Everything to play for.

Northern Ireland, aiming for their first World Cup finals since 1986, lost 1-0 to Switzerland in Belfast on Thursday when the two-legged play-offs began.

The Republic of Ireland meet Denmark, with the first leg in Copenhagen, in one of the other three ties as they seek to reach a first World Cup finals since 2002.

Four-time world champions Italy are in danger of missing out for the first time since 1958 as they take on Sweden, while Croatia look set to qualify after a 4-1 first-leg win over Greece.

These teams were the eight best second-placed finishers in the nine European qualifying groups, with Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia seeded because of their superior world rankings.

Denmark v Republic of Ireland

First leg: Saturday, 11 November (19:45 GMT), Copenhagen

Second leg: Tuesday, 14 November (19:45 GMT), Dublin

The Republic of Ireland may have qualified for back-to-back European Championships, but have not featured on the biggest stage of all since a buoyant showing at the 2002 World Cup.

West Brom winger James McClean’s second-half goal earned a victory in Wales last month to send them into the qualifying play-offs at the expense of their hosts.

Denmark, who last qualified in 2010, finished second behind Poland in their qualifying group.

“Naturally, we’re just pleased to be in the draw,” Republic manager Martin O’Neill said.

“Being one of the unseeded teams means it was always going to be a difficult tie. We’re delighted to be in it.”

Form guide:

  • Denmark have lost one of their last eight competitive home matches, winning four and drawing three
  • The Republic are unbeaten in six competitive away games, winning three and drawing three

Sweden v Italy

First leg: Friday, 10 November (19:45 GMT), Stockholm

Second leg: Monday, 13 November (19:45 GMT), Milan

A World Cup finals without four-time winners Italy, whose only failure to qualify came back in 1958, is almost unthinkable for many football fans.

The Azzurri also came close to missing out when England pipped them in their 1998 World Cup qualifying group, and they needed a 2-1 play-off win against Russia to scrape through.

Many Italian fans are fearing the worst after some lacklustre recent performances, including a humbling 3-0 defeat in Spain and embarrassing 1-1 home draw against Macedonia, but veteran coach Gian Piero Ventura says that failure to reach Russia has not crossed his mind.

“Going to the World Cup is important for everyone, the young and the not-so-young,” said the 69-year-old.

“I have never considered the possibility of not going to the World Cup. Italy has never let us down and we won’t let Italy down.”

After missing out on the past two tournaments, Sweden could fail to qualify for three consecutive World Cup finals for the first time.

The Swedes finished behind France in Group A but clinched runners-up spot ahead of the Netherlands, who needed to win by seven clear goals to overtake them in the final game.

Form guide:

  • Sweden are unbeaten in seven competitive home matches, winning six and drawing one
  • Italy have won just two of their past four matches

Northern Ireland v Switzerland

First leg: Northern Ireland 0-1 Switzerland, Belfast

Second leg: Sunday, 12 November (17:00 GMT), Basel

Northern Ireland and Switzerland had not faced off in a competitive fixture since 1964 and this first-leg meeting will likely be remembered for a controversial penalty decision.

Michael O’Neill’s side, who are targeting back-to-back tournament appearances after reaching the last 16 at Euro 2016, fell behind when Corry Evans was adjudged to have handballed in the area, allowing Ricardo Rodriguez to score.

O’Neill had said not conceding an away goal was “the most important thing” and his side now have it all to do in Basel against a side who won nine of their 10 matches in the group stages and only lost out on qualification to Portugal on goal difference.

Croatia v Greece

First leg: Croatia 4-1 Greece, Zagreb

Second leg: Sunday, 12 November (19:45 GMT), Pireaus

Croatia have won all four of their previous play-off ties – to reach either World Cup or European Championship tournaments – and have booked a place at nine out of 11 major finals as an independent nation.

They look set to do so again after a commanding first-leg win in which Greece paid for errors and slack defending.

It was Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic’s second game in charge and his side will now have to suffer their biggest defeat since 2009 if they fail to qualify in Athens on Sunday.

Which European nations have already qualified?

Ten European nations have already qualified for next year’s finals, including hosts Russia, holders Germany and England

Five-time winners Brazil have also qualified, along with Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Uruguay.

Who else can still qualify?

The tournament will consist of 32 teams, with hosts Russia joined by 31 qualifiers from around the globe.

We already know 23 of the nations who will compete next summer, plus the four European play-off winners.

That leaves five more spots to be decided:

Peru or New Zealand (South America/Oceania play-off)

Honduras or Australia (CONCACAF/Asia play-off)

Tunisia or Congo (African Group A winners)

Morocco or Ivory Coast (African Group B winners)

Senegal or Burkina Faso or Cape Verde or South Africa (African Group D winners)

Road to Russia: The key dates

  • 9-11 November: Play-off first legs
  • 12-14 November: Play-off second legs
  • 1 December: Groups are drawn
  • 14 June – 15 July 2018: World Cup

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