UEFA play-offs: 8 players to watch
Think back to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ play-offs in Europe and chances are that Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics will spring immediately to mind.
With the pressure on and the stakes sky-high, the Portugal captain stepped up to deliver his team to Brazil 2014, breaking Swedish hearts in the process.
This time, and while Ronaldo and Portugal are safely through, eight teams will be hoping that a hero can emerge and secure their place at Russia 2018.
With that in mind, FIFA.com looks at some of the players who could prove decisive in the upcoming play-offs.
Steven Davis (NIR) *Age: 32 Position: Midfielder 2018 WCQ appearances: 10 2018 WCQ goals: 2
An intelligent and industrious midfielder, Northern Ireland's skipper leads by example. “Steven epitomises everything you want in a captain,” the team’s manager, Michael O’Neill, has said. “He takes responsibility on the pitch, he drives the team forward. In my opinion he's one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League.”
Xherdan Shaqiri (SUI) *Age: 26 Position: Midfielder 2018 WCQ appearances: 8 2018 WCQ goals: 1
He may not have reached the heights scaled at the 2014 World Cup, but Shaqiri remains the Swiss player most capable of conjuring up a moment of magic. "He's a fantastic footballer,” his Stoke City team-mate, Darren Fletcher, enthused recently. “You can talk about his strength and his size but the biggest thing is that his first touch is fantastic."
Luka Modric (CRO) *Age: 32 Position: Midfielder 2018 WCQ appearances: 8 2018 WCQ goals: 0
For many, he is the best midfielder in the world right now. Ukraine coach Andriy Shevchenko paid an even grander tribute recently, hailing Modric as “one of the best midfielders ever". Retaining his place in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI at The Best awards last week confirmed the esteem in which the Real Madrid star is held, as did being voted the best midfielder in last season’s UEFA Champions League. Kostas Mitroglou (GRE) *Age: 29 Position: Striker 2018 WCQ appearances: 8 2018 WCQ goals: 6
Mitroglou scored three times in Greece’s Brazil 2014 play-off win over Romania, and he will again be a key figure. The Marseille striker has been responsible for over a third of his team’s goals in the Russia 2018 qualifiers and is almost certain to pose the main threat to Croatia’s well-drilled defence.
Marcus Berg (SWE) *Age: 31 Position: Striker 2018 WCQ appearances: 9 2018 WCQ goals: 8
Thriving in the spotlight following the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Berg has provided power, panache and plenty of goals to Sweden’s qualifying push. “The last two years have been my best with the national team,” he told FIFA.com last week.
Ciro Immobile (ITA) *Age: 27 Position: Striker 2018 WCQ appearances: 10 2018 WCQ goals: 6
An ever-present in Italy’s Group G campaign, Immobile is a huge favourite of Giampiero Ventura’s. The Italy coach propelled the striker to prominence during the pair’s time together at Torino and, after difficult spells in Germany and Spain, Immobile is returning to form again. “I’ve always had a special rapport with Ventura,” the striker has explained. “I’ve improved so much thanks to him.”
Christian Eriksen (DEN) *Age: 25 Position: Attacking midfielder 2018 WCQ appearances: 10 2018 WCQ goals: 9
A master at both creating and scoring goals for Denmark, as the above tally shows, Eriksen is undoubtedly his team’s star man. “I think he has become as important to Denmark as Gareth Bale to Wales,” said Martin O’Neill, manager of the Republic of Ireland side tasked with stopping him. “He is playing exceptionally well. If you are talking about Messi and Ronaldo being the two outstanding players in the world, then Bale is in that little group behind them that includes Hazard, Bale, Suarez, Neymar - all of those players. Eriksen, in his last year both for club and country, has put himself into that sort of category.”
James McClean (IRL) *Age: 28 Position: Midfielder 2018 WCQ appearances: 9 2018 WCQ goals: 5*
McClean’s match-winning, play-off-sealing goal against Wales confirmed his reputation as Republic of Ireland’s talisman and big-game player. “He epitomises what we’re about as a whole team, and as a nation,” Harry Artrer, his midfield colleague, said of the all-action West Bromwich Albion star. “His passion for us is incredible and alongside that he’s scored massive goals for us.”