Italy to play Sweden, Rep of Ireland to meet Denmark in World Cup playoff
Italy have been drawn against Sweden in the European playoffs for the 2018 World Cup, while the Republic of Ireland will meet Denmark.
Elsewhere in the draw for next summer's tournament in Russia, Northern Ireland will face Switzerland and Croatia will play Greece.
Italy finished second in their qualifying group behind Spain to reach the playoffs, with Sweden narrowly beating the Netherlands to a place in the draw. France topped that pool.
Italy, who have not missed a World Cup since 1958, had been the seeded team going into the draw as the 15th-placed nation in the FIFA World Ranking, with Sweden 25th. Italy beat Sweden 1-0 in the group stage at Euro 2016.
"Destiny has decided this," Italy manager Gabriele Oriali told Sky Sport Italia. "From my point of view, the draw could have been better, but we are Italy, with a tradition which means we must not fear anybody. But certainly we're going to be up against tough opponents. Sweden came through a difficult group, succeeding in beating France in a single game and eliminating Netherlands.
"Let's hope we can get a few players back from injury. In our most recent games, we've been without four or five important players due to physical problems. [Andrea] Belotti is recovering, as are [Marco] Verratti, [Lorenzo] Pellegrini and [Claudio] Marchisio, but obviously we need them all to be in peak condition."
Italy, who will travel to Solna for the first leg on Nov. 10, will announce by Friday what the venue for their home leg will be. Milan's San Siro has been touted as a possibility, as has Palermo's Renzo Barbera and the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa.
Sweden coach Janne Andersson says work will now begin on getting to know Italy.
"They will be two tough games, but they would have been [tough] against any other country," he told FIFA.com. "I'm happy that we know who we meet now, as all we've been doing is waiting, but now we can prepare for the games. I've not put so much energy into thinking about the possible opponents, but history tells us that they are a good team."
Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist was quoted by Expressen as saying: "Italy was perhaps the toughest team, but that's the way it is with a draw. We got Portugal in the last World Cup playoff, and now we have Italy. We've shown that we can beat nations like France, and they're perhaps a bit better than Italy. We have to produce two top-level performances to threaten Italy.
"We really have to reach the same level we did when we played France. Above all, we have to try and keep a clean sheet in the first game, because it can be decisive to get an away goal. I don't want to put a percentage [on Italy's chances]. They're big favourites, but we've shown that we can cause upsets in these types of matches, so it will be exciting."
Republic of Ireland, ranked 26th, claimed their place in the playoffs in dramatic fashion, beating Wales in their final group game to leapfrog them into second spot behind Serbia. Denmark, who sit 19th in the ranking, finished second in their group to Poland.
"Naturally, we're just pleased to be in the draw," Ireland boss Martin O'Neill said. "Being unseeded means it was always going to be a difficult tie. We're delighted to be in it."
He added: "If you ask most coaches, you want the second game at home. But with the rules like extra time, it gives the away team that chance to score in 120 minutes."
O'Neill, who played alongside Denmark boss Age Hareide at Manchester City and Norwich in the 1980s, said: "It will be an interesting confrontation."
Switzerland were unlucky not to reach the finals as winners of their group, ending the campaign with nine wins from their 10 qualifiers, but they lost to Portugal in the final game of the group to finish behind the European champions. They are the highest-ranked nation in the playoffs, sitting 11th in the ranking.
Northern Ireland, 23rd in the ranking, lost to Germany and Norway in their final two qualifiers but still finished four points clear of Czech Republic to seal their place in the playoffs.
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill said: "It was going to be tough whoever we got, but we're capable of going through to the finals in Russia.
"The most important thing is not to concede in the first leg as away goals can prove to be vital."
Meanwhile, 18th-ranked Croatia finished ahead of Ukraine for a spot in the draw, and their opponents, 47th-ranked Greece, edged out Bosnia and Herzegovina in their group.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said: "It will be a difficult job. I trust my team, and I hope we do a good job."
The first legs for each tie will take place from Nov. 9-11, with the second legs on Nov. 12-14.
World Cup playoff draw:
Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland
Croatia vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Republic of Ireland
Sweden vs. Italy
Information from the Press Association was used in this report.
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