Europe’s eight play-off contenders in numbers
Denmark and Northern Ireland appearing in the play-offs for first time
Switzerland, Croatia and Italy all have 100-percent play-off records
Eight teams learned their play-off opponents on 17 October
The best eight second-placed sides in the European qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ now know who they have to beat if they are to make next year’s world finals. We take a look at the eight nations’ respective play-off records to see if they offer them any grounds for optimism.
NORTHERN IRELAND Three previous World Cup appearances, the last of which came at Mexico 1986. Reached the quarter-finals at Sweden 1958 and the second round at Spain 1982.
• Previous play-offs (0/0) Northern Ireland have never taken part in a play-off before.
SWITZERLAND Ten previous World Cup appearances. Korea/Japan 2002 was the last world finals the Swiss failed to reach. Best performances came in reaching the quarter-finals at Italy 1934, France 1938 and Switzerland 1954.
• Previous play-offs (2/2) The Swiss beat Sweden 2-1 in a single play-off match en route to Chile 1962 and advanced to Germany 2006 on the away-goals rule after drawing 4-4 with Turkey over two legs.
CROATIA Four previous World Cup appearances: 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2014. Best performance was at France 1998, where they finished third.
• Previous play-offs (2/2) Croatia won both their two previous play-offs, beating Ukraine 3-1 on aggregate en route to France 1998 and Iceland 2-0 in reaching Brazil 2014.
GREECE Three previous World Cup appearances: 1994, 2010 and 2014. Best performance came at Brazil 2014, where they reached the Round of 16.
• Previous play-offs (2/3) Greece lost the first of their three play-offs, to Hungary in the qualifiers for France 1938, but beat Ukraine 1-0 on aggregate on the road to South Africa 2010 and Romania 4-2 en route to Brazil 2014.
DENMARK Four previous World Cup appearances: 1986, 1998, 2002 and 2010. Best performance came at France 1998, where they reached the quarter-finals.
• Previous play-offs (0/0) Denmark have never taken part in a play-off before.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND Three previous World Cup appearances: 1990, 1994 and 2002. Best performance came at Italy 1990, where they reached the quarter-finals.
• Previous play-offs (1/4) Republic of Ireland lost 1-0 to Spain in a play-off on neutral ground in the England 1966 qualifying competition. They also lost 3-2 on aggregate to Belgium in the qualifiers for France 1998 and 2-1 on aggregate to France (after extra time) in the South Africa 2010 preliminaries. Their one and only play-off win was a 2-1 aggregate defeat of Iran in an intercontinental tie in the Korea/Japan 2002 preliminaries.
SWEDEN 11 previous World Cup appearances, though they have missed the last two. Best performance came on home soil in 1958, when they finished runners-up.
• Previous play-offs (1/3) Sweden’s only play-off success was a 2-1 defeat of Austria in a tie held on neutral ground in the qualifiers for Germany 1974. They lost 2-1 to Switzerland in another one-off match in the Chile 1962 preliminaries and went down 4-2 on aggregate to Portugal in the play-offs for Brazil 2014.
ITALY Four-time world champions: 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006 Absent from only two world finals competitions: Uruguay 1930 and Sweden 1958.
• Previous play-offs (1/1) In their one and only play-off appearance, the Italians defeated Russia 2-1 on aggregate in the qualifiers for France 1998, with the great Gianluigi Buffon making his international debut in goal in the first leg in Moscow on 29 October 1997.