It was disappointing to finish behind Iceland in our group. We are a strong team with promising youngsters and experienced players, so should have qualified automatically. We have been extremely fortunate to draw Greece. Perhaps we will play these two games with more urgency and inject a little national pride back into the team. Failing to qualify would be heartbreaking, but not surprising if an inspired Greece side turn up.
I’m frustrated by the team’s on-off mentality. We play sublimely at times but on bad days we would struggle to give San Marino a game. Luka Modric has been the heart of our team for a decade now and continues to be the main man. The World Cup in Russia would be a wonderful opportunity to see some of our young talent develop and break through into the first team. Matej Sinlovca
Croatia host Greece on Thursday, with the return leg on Sunday.
I’m an FC Copenhagen season ticket holder and have been a long-distance Spurs fan since 1975 after reading a Danish translation of The Glory Game at my school library. No player is more important to our squad than Christian Eriksen. He’s the man with the plan who is finally showing the same skills for the national team that he produces for Spurs every week.
Our qualifying campaign started extremely disappointingly and our hopes were all but over when Montenegro smashed and grabbed a victory in Copenhagen. But somehow our Norwegian national coach, Age Hareide, kickstarted us into action and we have not looked back. We’ve been on the rise since our memorable 4-0-thrashing of group winners Poland.
In the two legs against the Republic of Ireland, a lot will depend on Eriksen doing something brilliant. Pione Sisto is the assist king of La Liga, but his tricks and pace haven’t led to too much for the national side. We will also be looking to goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Werder Bremen midfielder Thomas Delaney and our captain Simon Kjaer, who joined Sevilla in the summer.
There doesn’t seem to be much between the teams. I expect two very physical games and think we’ll be held to a goalless draw at home before losing 1-0 in the away leg. Lars Bogegaard
Denmark host Republic of Ireland on Saturday, with the second leg on Tuesday.
Croatia are a hard proposition for us. Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic are pretty scary when you think about who will be trying to stop them. But Greece have never been favourites for qualification, yet we seem to end up at tournaments anyway. I’m very proud of my national team’s achievements no matter what happens this time.
It was never going to be easy in a group with Belgium and Bosnia. And it soon became obvious Belgium were going to win the group. A hard-fought draw against Bosnia at home, and an even tougher draw away in Belgium, gave us some belief that we could make it to the play-offs. A shocking home draw against Estonia almost cost us, but two wins against Cyprus and Gibraltar sealed the deal.
Defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos will be crucial in the first leg in Zagreb, especially as Kostas Manolas is suspended. He is our leader and has captained Borussia Dortmund, so we look to him to show the Croatians what Greeks are made of and defend Orestis Karnezis’ goal like never before. Croatia are the obvious favourites but hopefully the expectation on them will make them feel anxious. George Anagnostou
Greece travel to Croatia for the first leg on Thursday, with their home leg on Sunday.
These will be two very important games for Italian football. Not qualifying for the World Cup would be a national catastrophe. We must be fairly confident though. Italy usually perform when it matters in knockout situations.
It was a strange qualifying campaign. We’re used to Italy being the strongest team in the group but there was the small matter of Spain this time around. Italy performed as expected against all the other teams – winning all but one game – but the two matches against Spain proved we are well behind the very top teams in the world.
Lazio’s Ciro Immobile is in top form and has scored 14 goals in his first 11 Serie A matches. Andrea Belotti is injured so Italy will need Immobile’s goals. But I think the key player for Italy is Marco Verratti. He is a top-class midfielder, but has never been able to play regularly in the national team due to continuous injuries. The performances of veteran players such as Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli will also be decisive. It will be very hard to succeed if these players underperform.
I think the two legs against Sweden will be typical Italian-style games. Both teams will be trying to restrict the other side to as few chances as possible. The second leg in Milan will probably be decisive, although it will be much easier if we manage to score in Sweden. A score draw in the first leg would be regarded as a good result. Thomas Romano
Italy face Sweden away on Friday, before their home leg on Monday.
I’m quietly confident. The Swiss were completely outclassed by Portugal in their final group game and this setback could give us the advantage. Like Northern Ireland, the Swiss don not have a superstar player in their ranks.
Even after the success of Euro 2016, this qualifying campaign has exceeded our expectations. Germany bossed the group, which essentially made it a five-team shootout for second place. After our opening draw in Prague against Czech Republic there was cause for optimism, and the way we dispatched all the other teams at Windsor Park secured our place in the play-offs. We aren’t the most expansive team, but every team knows they have been in a game after playing Northern Ireland.
The football we play is more about collective spirit and passion, but the key to our team is most certainly Steven Davis. Our skipper is our most technically astute player and makes the whole team tick. Apart from Davis, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt will have big parts to play in both games. Switzerland will dominate possession in both games and the understanding between our defenders will be key. If any of them are missing through injury, our chances will be a lot slimmer.
The atmosphere in Windsor Park on Thursday night will upset the Swiss players and I predict a 2-0 win for Northern Ireland. Switzerland will expect to come to Belfast and win, which could potentially be their downfall. In the Basel return leg I expect us to keep it tight and we should get through with a nervy 0-0 draw. Then it will be next stop Russia. Ryan McFarland
Northern Ireland host Switzerland on Thursday, with the away leg on Sunday.
Republic of Ireland
We should fancy our chances against the lowest ranked team from the top seeds. Denmark are a decent side but, apart from marvellous playmaker Christian Eriksen and exciting prospect Kasper Dolberg, they are short of standout players.
Excellent results masked terrible performances early on in our qualifying campaign and our tendency to take the lead and sit deep while inviting needless pressure cost us automatic qualification. The 2-2 draw away to Serbia and the embarrassing performance away to Georgia are prime examples. But our tenacity and desire to grind out results is undeniable and that spirit carried us to second place in a tough group featuring Wales and Austria teams that are technically superior to us.
James McClean is the physical embodiment of our team philosophy: endless running, determination and the occasional moment of magic. He’s been critical to us since Euro 2016, scoring the winners away in Wales and Austria and digging us out of a hole against Moldova. With Jon Walters injured and Shane Long lacking any kind of form, McClean is our biggest goalscoring threat. His willingness to put his foot in often sets the tone for the team and lifts the crowd.
Wes Hoolahan is perhaps Ireland’s most technically gifted player. O Neill’s unwillingness to use him is always a cause for consternation among the media and fans. Despite his age, he offers something Ireland lack in midfield: composure and the ability to link play. David Meyler, who has excelled since gaining a starting place, is also a firm favourite.
The away leg is crucial for us. We were unbeaten away from home in the group stage, including wins away to Austria and Wales and a credible draw with Serbia. I can see us heading back to Dublin with a 1-0 win. As for the home tie, we only lost once in the group stage against eventual group winners Serbia. Martin O’Neill’s tactics ensure we are difficult to beat and that will continue through these play-offs with a 1-1 draw in Dublin securing our progression to our first World Cup since 2002. As long as we avoid conceding any free-kicks that invite Eriksen to demonstrate his set-piece skills, we should be fine over the two legs. Ryan O Hanlon
Republic of Ireland travel to Copenhagen on Saturday, with their home leg on Tuesday.
I’m not confident at all. Italy rarely fail to qualify for a World Cup. If history gives a clue, which it often does, Italy will be going to Russia next summer. We have done really well to finish second in our group; I expected France and Holland to take the first two spots. After Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired, I thought it this would be a campaign of rebuilding and laying foundations for the future generation. But the only big failure was losing to Bulgaria away.
For things to go well against Italy, goalkeeper Robin Olsen must have two good games. Emil Forsberg is doing well at RB Leipzig and he will hold the key offensively. Marcus Berg hasn’t had the blossoming club career everyone expected – he is currently playing for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates – but he has had an excellent qualifying campaign for us, scoring eight goals. He’ll need to find the net again if we are to make it to Russia. Christian Bojesson
Sweden host Italy on Friday, before travelling to Milan for the second leg on Monday.
It was all going perfectly until the very last group match, when Portugal snatched a victory and leapfrogged us to claim top spot. That was disappointing as nothing else had gone wrong at all up until those 90 minutes in Lisbon. But I’m very confident we can beat Northern Ireland. We are superior technically and tactically. Our only main flaw against supposed inferior opposition is our capacity to break down the defence. We can often get frustrated.
Xherdan Shaqiri is the obvious choice for most important player but I want to see a fit Breel Embolo show what he’s capable of again. He has the strength, speed and technical ability to create something special. He may prove too hot to handle for the Northern Ireland defence – no matter how organised they are at the back. I like Haris Seferovic too. He does everything right: great hold-up play, good vision and feet. He just needs to be more clinical in front of goal. Also look out for Denis Zakaria, a defensive midfielder who is definitely one for the future. I think we will edge it, winning both games 1-0. Nikola Simcic
Switzerland play Northern Ireland away Thursday, with the return leg on Sunday.
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