The waiting is over. It has been over one year since the European section of the World Cup qualifiers began with 52 teams all aiming to reach the World Cup in Russia in 2018. It has been one month since the conclusion of the group stages that saw eight national teams consigned to one last shootout. It has been 22 days since the draw was made and the countdown began but now it is here. Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland. Belfast, Basel, and the World Cup.
Two legs to determine who gets one of the final tickets to Russia. Two nations full of hope and expectation. The ancient old ground of Windsor Park, well over 100 years old has seen some moments over the years. 2-1 over Germany, the 3-2 victories over Poland, Austria and Spain, anything David Healy did on that famous ground, including the 1-0 victory over England, the debuts of George Best and Pat Jennings vs. Uruguay in 1964, the very first match at the venue vs. Scotland and of course, more recently, the fantastic 3-1 victory over the Greeks to secure a place at Euro 2016.
The old place will be rocking again on Thursday and bursting at its very seams to create yet more history for Northern Ireland. There has never been this much belief about the national side for many years and after qualifying for France in 2016 and a great qualifying campaign that saw them only bested to top spot by the World Champions, Germany and only beaten by one other team, there is real hope that more magic can be conjured up to secure a place at the World Cup for the first time since 1986. George Best, Pat Jennings, David Healy and others are ingrained in the history of this quaint venue but Thursday may just see the names of new legends created for Northern Irish football.
Switzerland stand in the way. Switzerland expects. It wasn’t quite do-or-die when the Swiss took to the field in Lisbon last month to play Portugal but it sure felt like it when an own goal and one from Andre Silva sent Switzerland into these play-offs and not onwards to Russia like the Portuguese. Switzerland are still alive, just. After that remarkable qualifying campaign, 9 wins from 10, losing out only on goal difference, just two matches stand between Switzerland and a record fourth consecutive World Cup.
When the draw was made last month, it was viewed as probably the kindest draw Switzerland could have received. Sweden were to be avoided at all costs while Greece and Ireland were two others that Switzerland would’ve fancied their chances with. Others would’ve preferred the Greeks, a less than stellar qualifying campaign and some poor results in recent times had some viewing them as the easiest option while the same could be said for Ireland.
That being said, no game at this stage is easy. Two legs to determine a World Cup fate. 180 minutes and possibly more of international football. Anything can happen. Whomever progresses, it won’t be straight forward.
Northern Ireland have lost only to Croatia, Germany twice and Portugal in their last 19 in the city while Switzerland’s away form is shaky at best, although they never typically lose heavily on the road.
For Switzerland, getting out of Belfast with something tangible is the main thing. Leaving with a win would be fantastic but a draw in Belfast, hopefully with an away goal, sets it up perfectly for the second leg.
With over 117 countries broadcasting the match, the eyes of much of the World will be on Windsor Park.
Over to you, Switzerland.
Windsor Park will be rocking again on Thursday.