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Ranking the 4 teams Ireland could face in the play-offs in order of difficulty

Portugal’s win over Switzerland tonight means Martin O’Neill’s side could face the latter.

FOUR-TIME WORLD Cup winners Italy and Switzerland, who won nine of their 10 qualifiers for Russia 2018, will be among the four seeded teams for the play-offs in November.

Croatia and Denmark will also be seeded for the October 17 draw, which takes place a day after the latest FIFA rankings are set to be released.

Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland cannot face each other as both countries will be unseeded, joining Sweden and Greece — who secured a play-off place with a 4-0 win over Gibraltar on Tuesday — in the same pot.

Slovakia, who finished second behind England in Group F, were the team to miss out as the worst runner-up of the nine groups once points against the bottom side in each section were deducted.

N.B – 1 = most difficult 4 = least difficult

4. Switzerland (Fifa ranking: 7)

Soccer WCup 2018 Portugal Switzerland Source: Armando Franca

Switzerland are clearly a decent side, even if an ordinary performance away to Portugal tonight suggests otherwise. They had a 100% record in qualification before this evening, and only missed out on an automatic World Cup spot on goal difference. However, of all the sides Ireland could face, they are the one squad with no genuinely world-class player, though the likes of Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka and Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri are arguably a cut above anyone in the Irish team.

3. Denmark (Fifa ranking: 26)

Soccer WCup 2018 Montenegro Denmark Source: AP/PA Images

Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen is their main man, but they have some impressive players throughout the team, including Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and Ajax defender Simon Kjær, though their recent qualification record is poor enough, with Euro 2012 being the last time they reached a major tournament. They ultimately finished second in Group E, five points behind Poland, and ahead of Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

2. Croatia (Fifa ranking: 18) 

Soccer WCup 2018 Ukraine Croatia Source: Efrem Lukatsky

Any side with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, one of the best midfielders in the world should be feared, while Mario Mandžukić (Juventus), Ivan Rakitić (Barcelona) and Ivan Perišić (Inter) are all superb players too. Irish fans will also have bad memories of the Euro 2012 3-1 defeat. That said, victory for Ireland against Croatia does not seem inconceivable, particularly when you consider that they finished behind a similarly workmanlike side in Iceland in Group I. Moreover, they appear to be in a bit of disarray, having sacked their coach following a disappointing draw with Finland last week.

1. Italy (Fifa ranking: 17)

Italy: Italy v FYR Macedonia - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The nightmare scenario. Ireland may have beaten Italy at Euro 2016, but it was a second-string team who had already qualified for the knockout stages. Defeating a side that is likely to include the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, Milan centre-back Leonardo Bonucci, PSG midfielder Marco Verratti and Lazio forward Ciro Immobile would be Martin O’Neill’s greatest achievement yet as Ireland boss. The Italians were unlucky to be drawn in the same group as Spain and finished 10 points ahead of third-placed Albania.

Additional reporting by AFP

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Paul Fennessy

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