So here we are: the last set of fixtures to decide the final four teams who will take their places in France at the European Championships next summer.
These look a tight set of fixtures, and given the controversies that have dogged Play Off games in the past – who can forget the ‘Hand of Henry’ against the Irish in the World Cup 2010 decider – these are games well worth keeping an eye on.
Norway vs Hungary
Norway were usurped as Group H automatic qualifiers by Croatia after they failed to defeat Italy in their last game in the group. In truth, it was probably the crushing 5-1 loss to the Croats in Zagreb that ultimately cost them their place.
They have been handed perhaps the most agreeable of all the available Play Off opponents however in the shape of Hungary, and they will be hoping to take a nice first leg lead to Eastern Europe.
This is not a Norwegian team packed with recognisable talent anymore, although the powerful striker Alexander Soderlund has enjoyed a prolific domestic campaign with Rosenborg. Norwich City fans will be familiar with the work of Alexander Tettey, whilst many football hipsters’ eyes will be drawn to the role that 17-year-old wonderkid Martin Odegaard plays in proceedings. They last took part in a big tournament 15 years ago (Euro ‘2000), so there is bound to be nerves about.
Hungary’s drought of big tournament football dates back to the World Cup of 1986, and they will fancy their chances against an under-performing Norway. In truth, they should have perhaps qualified automatically from a weak Group F that was won by Northern Ireland and seconded by the somehow unbeaten Romania.
The Hungarians too aren’t blessed with household names – the likes of Gabor Kiraly, Tamas Priskin and Zoltan Gera will be familiar to English football fans – whilst Balázs Dzsudzsák has previously played Champions League football at PSV.
But you’d have to fancy Norway to certainly win their home leg – they’ve not been beaten on home soil for over a year, and at 10/11 they represent decent value.
Bosnia vs Republic of Ireland
In truth, the Irish were always going to struggle to qualify automatically from Group G given that they were paired with Germany and a Robert Lewandowski inspired Poland, amongst others. But they put up a creditable fight, and taking four points from two games against the Germans shows how far they have come.
Led by the inspirational Robbie Keane, who comes into this game off the back of another phenomenal MLS campaign, it was only defeat in Poland in the last group match that stopped them from progressing by right. With bags of Premier League experience – despite the suspensions of John O’Shea and Jon Walters – they should go well here.
Bosnia will prove no pushovers however, and they have plenty of top flight experience to call on themselves. Edin Dzeko has scored goals wherever he has played, and with seven in seven during his country’s qualification campaign he remains their talisman; well prompted as he is by the likes of Miralem Pjanic.
With a draw against Belgium and a win over Wales on home soil, Bosnia is the proverbial ‘tough place to go’, but the Irish realistically only need to take a point back to the Emerald Isle to put themselves in the driving seat. You can back them to do just that at 12/5.
Ukraine vs Slovenia
Ukraine’s hopes of qualifying for Euro ’16 automatically were all but ended by Slovenia’s neighbour, Slovakia, in Group C, and yet they were performed admirably throughout: conceding just four goals in ten games, as testament to their defensive solidarity.
They’ve got some quality attacking talents at their disposal too: Yevhen Konoplyanka, despite the terrible mullet, secured himself a big money move to Sevilla in the summer and netted in their loss to Manchester City, whilst Andriy Yarmolenko remains a reliable goal getter for club (Dynamo Kiev) and country.
Slovenia did pretty much as expected in Group E: losing to England Switzerland and (mostly) beating the minnows that completed the pool. They qualified for the play offs as a consequence, although recent results – drawing with Lithuania before narrowly scraping past a perennial poor San Marino 2-0 – are not confident boosters. The fact that their line is led by a 36-year-old who plays his club football in Japan is also a cause for concern.
You would have to favour Ukraine to win this tie then at 4/6, and do note that only five of their last thirteen games have been settled by a goal margin of more than one. Ukraine to win by one goal at 23/10 looks fantastic value.
Sweden vs Denmark
The battle of Scandinavia could perhaps be the closest fought of all the play-off games, and yet how the two teams find themselves in this contest – and not with their bags already packed for France – remains a mystery.
Sweden’s 1-4 home defeat to Austria will live long in their collective memories, and it was that result that ultimately ended their hopes of automatic qualification. But for back-to-back defeats in September (to Austria and 1-0 in Russia), the Swedes would have gone through Group G unbeaten.
Denmark somehow conspired to finish below Albania in the five team Group I after failing to win any of their last three matches, and they will be reliant on the undoubted talents of Niklas Bendtner and Christian Eriksen to give them even a hope of overcoming their Nordic neighbours.
This could be another close game, but Sweden have the ‘Zlatan Factor’ in their favour: the hirsute frontman notched eight in eight during qualifying, and is Ligue 1’s top goalscorer thus far this campaign. His goals could make all the difference in a narrow Sweden win (13/10).