The World Cup fate of eight European nations will be decided at the UEFA playoffs for Russia 2018. The draw has been announced and the second-place group-stage finishers will play two-match aggregate goals series from November 9th-13th to decide who advances to the World Cup. No matter what, a few deserving nations will be forced to wait another four years.
Let’s take a look at the best bets for the first leg, which will take place November 9th-11th.
UEFA World Cup Playoff Picks
Croatia (-200) vs Greece (+800), Draw (+345)
You’ve read the headlines: Iceland, a country with a smaller population than [insert pretty much any city], has qualified for Russia 2018. It’s a great underdog story and fans everywhere are celebrating Iceland’s success. That is, everywhere except Croatia.
A rocky group stage saw the Croatians finish in second place behind Iceland, and they’ll now face Greece in the UEFA playoffs. Croatian football has been marred by corruption scandals in recent years, and all the drama off the pitch has affected their performance.
With two of the most creative midfielders in the world, Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, and a world-class striker, Mario Mandžukić, qualifying for Russia 2018 shouldn’t be this difficult.
The Greek lineup is underwhelming compared to Croatia’s, but they’ve been notoriously difficult to beat. Winning the 2004 Euro was the highlight of their footballing history, but the current squad is a long way away from its heyday.
Pick: Croatia (-200)
Denmark (-105) vs Ireland (+375), Draw (+250)
Ireland bumped off Wales in their final round-robin game to finish second in their group. Meanwhile, Denmark finished under Poland in a weak group. Both sides would be happy just to qualify for the World Cup; anything more would simply be a bonus.
Denmark managed to beat group-winners Poland, 4-0, in the round robin, and if they can replicate that performance against Ireland, they should be able to qualify for Russia. Especially for the home game, Denmark should be the better side.
Pick: Denmark (-105)
Northern Ireland (+235) vs Switzerland (+145), Draw (+250)
Switzerland accumulated 27 points over the group stage (nine wins, one loss) but lost out to Portugal on tiebreakers. It was an extremely unfortunate outcome for the Swiss, who have looked great this year. Luckily, they’ve been paired with Northern Ireland for the second round.
With most of their squad playing in England’s lower tiers, Northern Ireland doesn’t compare well to the bigger European countries. Advancing to the Round of 16 at the Euro last year was a massive overachievement.
Facing Northern Ireland away won’t be easy, but Switzerland have the manpower to win both legs.
Pick: Switzerland (+145)
Sweden (+224) vs Italy (+145), Draw (+235)
This is an unfortunate pairing. Both nations deserve to qualify for Russia but only one will get through. Italy was trapped in a group with Spain and emerged second-best, while Sweden was forced to compete against France and the Netherlands.
Sweden has been a joy to watch but their squad doesn’t quite hold up to Italy’s. Italy has underperformed in recent years, but it seems like they may be on the cusp of a resurgence.
Pick: Italy (+145)