Euro 2016 play-offs preview: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Martin Odegaard among those chasing

first_imgThe Euro 2016 play-offs begin on Thursday, so here is a rundown of the ins and outs of the teams hoping to secure a spot in France next summer.With Euro 2016 in France fast approaching, the time has come to decide the last four teams to qualify for the tournament.Can Zlatan Ibrahimovic cajole Sweden to a sixth appearance at the Euros? Will Martin Odegaard live up to his billing as world football’s most exciting talent? Might Ireland stop Bosnia and Herzegovina securing a maiden trip to the Euros? Can Andriy Yarmolenko further his reputation against Slovenia?Tie formatTwo-legged knockout, with seeds playing the second leg at home. Away goals rule applies after second leg normal and extra time – if teams are still level it goes to penalties.When are the matches?First legs to be played between 12 and 14 November. Second legs to be played between 15 and 17 November. SEEDEDHungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Sweden.UNSEEDEDNorway, Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Denmark NORWAY V HUNGARY NORWAY: Third in Group H, behind Italy and Croatia.Qualifying record: P10 W6 D1 L3 F13 A10 Pts19Route to the play-offs:Norway were in second going into the last round of games but their 2-1 loss to Italy coupled with Croatia’s narrow 1-0 win against Malta consigned Per-Mathias Høgmo’s men to the play-offs after finishing an agonising one point behind Croatia. Norway’s erratic campaign is best measured by their fortunes against the team that pipped them to qualification: they were admonished 5-1 by Croatia in March 2015 but won the return fixture 2-0 in September. Inconsistency was their undoing. FIFA World Ranking: 46Key player:Martin Odegaard. Precociously talented 16-year-old currently plying his trade at Real Madrid. Despite his inexperience, the former Stromsgodset player has embraced responsibility at international level having made seven appearances for the national team. It will be interesting to see how he copes with the unique pressures of play-off football, though. Excel and Norway have a very good chance of qualification.Top scorer: Alexander Tettey (3 goals)Best European Championship performance: Group Stage at Euro 2000 Last European Championship appearance: 2000European Championship appearances: 1 (2000)HUNGARY: Third in Group F, behind Northern Ireland and Romania.Qualifying record: P10 W4 D4 L2 F11 A9 Pts16 Route to the play-offs:Hungary were the major causalities of Northern Ireland’s improbable run to win the group. However, having drawn and lost to an utterly woeful Greece side that finished below the Faroe Islands, they can have no gripes after a third place finish; had they won those two fixtures, they would have supplanted Northern Ireland atop the group.FIFA World Ranking: 33Top scorer: Daniel Bode, Krisztián Németh (2 goals)Key player: Balázs Dzsudzsak. Dzsudzsak, currently plying his trade with Turkish side Bursaspor, has substantial European pedigree having represented PSV, Anzhi Makhachkala and Dynamo Moscow. Nemzeti Tizenegy drew four of their 10 qualifying matches, scoring just 11 goals and the burden of creativity weighs heavily on their captain but his guile remains central to Hungary’s hopes of qualification.Best performance: Third place 1964Last appearance: 1972 (fourth place)Number of appearances: 2 (1964, 1972)BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA V REPUBLIC OF IRELAND –BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: Third in Group B, behind Belgium and Wales.Qualifying record: P10 W5 D2 L3 F17 A12 Pts17Route to the play-offs:On reflection, Group B represented as close to a ‘Group of Death’ as is possible in the expanded iteration of the tournament. Belgium emerged from the group top of FIFA’s – admittedly skewed – world rankings while a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales lost only once en route to a first major championship since 1958. Throw into the mix early losses to Cyprus and the always resilient Israel and finishing third begins to look like a decent achievement FIFA World Ranking: 20Top scorer: Edin Dzeko (7 goals)Key player:Miralem Pjanic. Dzeko’s goals may garner the headlines, but Pjanic is the fulcrum of Mehmed Bazdarevic’s side. His three goals and four assists were pivotal as the Dragons secured qualification to a first-ever World Cup in 2014, and the Roma man’s influence – or lack thereof – will likely prove the deciding factor to their hopes of making a first Euros.Best performance: N/ALast appearance: N/ANumber of appearances: 0REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Third in Group D, behind Germany and PolandQualifying record: P10 W5 D3 L2 F19 A7 Pts18Route to the play-offs:Ireland took four points off world champions Germany yet still finished three points shy of second-placed Poland. Taking only one point against a Scotland side humbled by Georgia undoubtedly proved their undoing. Yet, they still harboured hopes of qualifying automatically as they made the trip to Poland for their final match but found Robert Lewandowski in insatiable form.Top scorer: Robbie Keane (5 goals)Key player:Wesley Hoolahan. A perfect fillip to the functional nature of this Ireland squad – yet, implausibly, not guaranteed to start. It seems that Martin O’Neill has doubts regarding the Norwich man’s defensive diligence. However, as he proved against Germany, Hoolahan is capable of marrying his technical superiority – in relation to his limited colleagues – with dogged defensive work.Best performance: Group Stage 1988, 2012Last appearance: 2012 (group stage)Number of appearances: 2 (1988, 2012)PREDICTION: Bosnia and Herzegovina to edge it. The Balkans have a superior goal threat and are generally more creative but the Irish have been known to raise their level against superior opposition – see the Germany matches. However, over the two legs, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s quality should see them through.UKRAINE V SLOVENIAUKRAINE: Third in Group C, behind Spain and Slovakia.Qualifying record: P10 W6 D1 L3 F14 A4 Pts19Route to the play-offs:A measly defence that only conceded four goals all campaign surely should have seen them through. Yet, patently they were the third best team in the group: they beat every other team home and away but lost twice to Spain and lost and drew against Slovakia. They restricted a free scoring Spain to only two goals across their two matches, and have quality in attack in the form of Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.FIFA World Ranking: 28Top scorer: Andriy Yarmolenko (4 goals)Key player:Andriy Yarmolenko. Run close by Yevhen Konoplyanka but Yarmolenko’s added goal threat from midfield tips the balance in the Dynamo Kyiv player’s favour. Yarmolenko, at 26 is already his country’s second highest scorer with 20 goals in 53 games. An already burgeoning reputation will be further furnished by an impressive turn against Slovenia.Best performance: Group Stage 2012Last appearance: 2012 (group stage)Number of appearances: 1 (2012)SLOVENIA: Third in Group E, behind England and Switzerland.Qualifying record: P10 W5 D1 L4 F18 A11 Pts16Route to the play-offs:Finished five points shy of Switzerland in third and have a chronic over-reliance on Milivoje Novakovic for goals. Lost to Estonia but beat Switzerland and were also denied a draw against England courtesy of a last-minute Wayne Rooney strike. It is fair to say that they are not too easy on the eye but can be very effective on their day.FIFA World Ranking: 64Top scorer: Milivoje Novakovic (6 goals)Key player:Milivoje Novakovic. Novakovic scored a third of his side’s goals on their way to third in a Group E. Novakovic, 36, has scored 31 goals in 70 appearances for the national side but Slovenia have an unhealthy reliance on the Nagoya Grampus forward for goals – captain and centre half Bostjan Cesar has eight goals in 87 appearances and represents Slovenia’s secondary goal threat. If Slovenia have any hope of progression then Novakovic must perform.Best performance: Group Stage 2000Last appearance: 2000Number of appearances: 1 (2000)SWEDEN V DENMARK SWEDEN: Third in Group G, behind Austria and Russia.Qualifying record: P10 W5 D3 L2 F15 A9 Pts18FIFA World Ranking: 45Route to the play-offs:Russia’s 1-0 win over Sweden on September 5th proved fatal to Sweden’s ambitions of qualifying automatically. Austria cantered to the group with an impressive 28 points from a possible 30 but it was in fact Sweden who were the only side to take any points off them – and on the very first match day to boot. However, a failure to build or sustain any sort of momentum or capitalise on Russia’s early travails cost them dear.Top scorer: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (8 goals)Key player:Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The personification of talisman. Suffered World Cup 2014 play-off heartache at the hands of a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, and the Euros could represent Zlatan’s last opportunity to represent Sweden at a major tournament – particularly at the height of his powers. Eight goals in a 10 qualification games should really have seen Sweden qualify automatically but a resurgent Russia stole in.Best performance: Semi-final 1992Last appearance: 2012 (group stage)Number of appearances: 5 (1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)DENMARK: Third in Group I, behind Portugal and Albania.Qualifying record: P8 W3 D3 L2 F8 A5 Pts12Route to the play-offs:The 1992 winners laboured to third with a sorry 12 points and were fortunate that Serbia completely imploded. A scoreless draw against Armenia quite aptly summed up what was a drab campaign. Will need a marked improvement against Sweden, and are fortunate to still have the opportunity to qualify.FIFA World Ranking: 35Top scorer: Nicklas Bendtner (2 goals)Key player:Christian Eriksen. Denmark conceded a paltry five goals in qualifying yet only scored eight. The burden of creativity falls on Tottenham’s Eriksen but he fell well short in qualification; a lack of quality around him and coach Morten Olsen’s conservatism offers mitigation but if Denmark harbour hopes of taming their Nordic neighbours then Eriksen will need to reproduce his club form.Best performance: Winners 1992Last appearance: 2012 (group stage)Number of appearances: 8 (1964, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012)–Follow Joy Sports on Twitter: @Joy997FM. Our hashtag is #JoySportslast_img read more