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Northern Irish eyes to smile
Northern Ireland take on Switzerland in the first leg of their World Cup play-off on Thursday and home advantage will be key.

The men in green have not played at the World Cup finals since 1986 but after getting a taste of the big time at Euro 2016, they will want to sample the thrills and spills of Russia next summer.

It was always going to be tough to top Group C and gain automatic qualification, with Germany in the equation, but second place above both Norway and Czech Republic was creditable.

The challenge now for the players is to lift themselves on two more occasions, with the return fixture in Basel on Sunday.

The Swiss go into the game as n/a favourites and rightly so after an incredible qualification campaign that saw them take maximum points from their first nine matches.

Unfortunately for coach Vladimir Petkovic so did Portugal and it was Cristiano Ronaldo and his men who took the all-important final showdown to book their spot in Russia.

Therefore it could now go two ways and the question has to be asked if Switzerland will have the bit between their teeth to go for it over the two legs, or will there be a hangover of disappointment from their last-gasp failure to qualify automatically?

Michael O’Neill and his players will hope it is the latter but there is enough class in the Switzerland team to worry any side, with the likes of Benfica’s Haris Seferovic, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus, Arsenal star Granit Xhaka and Stoke City’s bustling winger Xherdan Shaqiri in their ranks.

They scored 23 goals in the group stage and conceded only seven so keeping a clean sheet for the hosts at Windsor Park will be vital as they are likely to concede in the second leg.

Northern Ireland do not score too many goals - 17 from their 10 group games – but it is at the other end of the pitch that they excel, with just six conceded. The defence is sound but it is the battle in midfield which will be crucial and, in skipper Steven Davis, O’Neill has a man who can make the difference.

The Southampton schemer will earn his 100th cap on Thursday and has the experience to cope with the pressure over the two legs. He has already stated that personal milestones will mean little unless the Green and White Army get the job done, and they are priced at n/a to win the first leg.

The Northern Irish fans had been starved of top-level tournament football before the summer of 2016 and with the carrot of another summer cheering on their heroes abroad, there will be a few hoarse voices after this week’s match.

Switzerland may triumph over the two legs but it would be no surprise to see the home fans roar their heroes to glory on Thursday.

Recommended bet: Home win at n/a
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