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Friday, 18 January, 2019

Plucky underdogs Northern Ireland lacking in bite

Swiss can guard against first-leg loss at Windsor Park

Steven Davis (left) and Josh Magennis are crucial to Northern Ireland's chances
1 of 1

World Cup qualifying playoff first leg
Sky Sports Main Event, 7.45pm Thursday

Switzerland have ended up in the World Cup playoffs despite banking 27 points from a possible 30 in Group B but they can edge closer to Russia 2018 by beating Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.

The Swiss won every one of their eight qualifying matches against teams ranked below them and look worthy favourites to gain an advantage before the return match in Basel on Sunday.

Northern Ireland have made huge progress since Michael O'Neill took over as head coach in December 2011.

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Over the last six years their Fifa ranking has risen from 88th to 23rd but their greatest achievement was qualifying for Euro 2016 to end their 30-year exile from a major tournament finals.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup was always going to be tougher but Northern Ireland did the best they could have done in Group C by finishing second to world champions Germany.

However, their task was made easier by the poor performances of Czech Republic and Norway, who have been in decline.

A tougher challenge is in store against the Swiss and if Northern Ireland qualify (they are as big as 11-4 to do so) it would be a new high for O'Neill.

Switzerland are 11th in the Fifa rankings and of a much higher calibre than Norway or the Czechs.

Northern Ireland revel in their status as underdogs but they almost always come unstuck when faced with high-quality opposition.

In their last 20 matches against teams among Fifa's current top 25 they have posted five draws and 15 defeats.

Their best players are in defence and O'Neill will be delighted with the return to fitness of Jonny Evans, who has recovered a foot injury.

Offensively there is a lack of quality and there may be a starting role for physical front man Josh Magennis, who plies his trade for Charlton in Sky Bet League One.

They are a threat from set-pieces thanks to centre-backs, Gareth McAuley in particular, and the expert deliveries of left-back Chris Brunt.

Switzerland's rearguard will need to be focused and brave but they are capable of repelling the barrage and should have the advantage in terms of quality in the middle and attacking thirds.

The Swiss lack a world-class striker and were sharing the goals around in qualifying with 14 players getting on the scoresheet.

However, centre-forward Haris Seferovic has had a reasonable start to the season for Benfica, scoring four goals in ten league games, and winger Xherdan Shaqiri should be confident after scoring a superb goal in Stoke's 2-2 draw at home to West Brom last Saturday.

Switzerland might not be quite as good as their ranking suggests but they are a class above Northern Ireland and can show it in Belfast.

1pt 13-10 bet365, Betfred

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Team news

Northern Ireland
Jonny Evans (foot), Jamie Ward (calf) and Paddy McNair (knee) are back in the squad after injuries but Craig Cathcart (knee) is out.

Defenders Johan Djourou and Francois Moubandje are injured and not included in the squad.

Key stat 
Switzerland have won five of their last six competitive away games.

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In their last 20 matches against teams among the top 25 of the Fifa rankings Northern Ireland have posted five draws and 15 defeats
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