Irish Examiner - Sport - - SOCCER -

What is the point of the play-offs?

The two-legged ties will de­ter­mine the four sides who will join Europe’s nine group win­ners France, Por­tu­gal, Ger­many, Ser­bia, Poland, Eng­land, Spain, Bel­gium, and Ice­land — at Rus­sia 2018. The eight best se­cond-placed teams (Slo­vakia missed out de­spite fin­ish­ing run­ners-up to Eng­land in Group F) will bat­tle for the four re­main­ing qual­i­fy­ing spots. Join­ing North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land in the draw are: Swe­den, Switzer­land, Den­mark, Italy, Greece, and Croa­tia.

How will the draw work? The eight qual­i­fied teams have been di­vided into two pots based on the world rank­ings. Based on the rank­ings, Switzer­land (11th), Italy (15th), Croa­tia (18th), and Den­mark (19th) will be in pot one and will play one of the four teams in pot two. The se­cond pot will con­tain North­ern Ire­land (23rd), Swe­den (25th), Repub­lic of Ire­land (26th), and Greece (47th), so North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic can­not play each other. Like­wise they can­not play Swe­den or Greece.

What are North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic’s play-off records?

The Repub­lic have won three of eight play-off ties, but two of those wins have come at the last two at­tempts, against Es­to­nia to go to Euro 2012 and Bos­nia-herze­gov­ina to ad­vance to Euro 2016. North­ern Ire­land are new to the play-offs, hav­ing qual­i­fied au­to­mat­i­cally for last year’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships.

Who will be the team for North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic to avoid?

Italy. The Az­zurri are only in the play-offs be­cause they had the mis­for­tune of be­ing in the same qual­i­fy­ing group as Spain. They may be lower than Switzer­land in Fifa’s rank­ings, but they will still be a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent.

When will the matches be played?

Home and away fix­tures will be played be­tween Novem­ber 9 and Novem­ber 15. The or­der of fix­tures will be de­ter­mined by the draw. Once one ball has been taken from pot one and an­other from pot two, they will be placed in a cen­tral pot, mixed and then drawn one by one. The first ball drawn will host the first leg be­tween Novem­ber 9 and 11. The re­turn leg takes place be­tween Novem­ber 12 and 14.

Who goes to Rus­sia?

The win­ner is de­cided on ag­gre­gate, so the scorer of the most goals ad­vances to the World Cup fi­nals. In event of a draw on ag­gre­gate, away goals ap­ply. If there is still no de­cid­ing fac­tor at the end of nor­mal time, then the tie will go to ex­tra time (two pe­ri­ods of 15 min­utes), with the away goals rule still ap­pli­ca­ble. If there is still no win­ner, then the tie will go to a penalty shootout.

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