Northern Ireland v Switzerland
Thursday, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports Main Event

Match Odds - Northern Ireland 4.00 Switzerland 2.30 Draw 3.15

O'Neill's men not quite the huge underdog
It would go down as one of the great managerial achievements in recent international football history if Michael O'Neill succeeds in taking Northern Ireland to a World Cup. But it would be wrong to pitch their two legged tie with Switzerland as an encounter between a massive underdog and a patently superior force.

That is simply not true on the basis of the side's respective recent performances and it would appear that the perception of Northern Ireland - purely based on size - is in danger of underestimating the home side in the first leg of Thursday's playoff.

Northern Ireland were the highest world ranked seeded side available in the playoff drama but they were scoring highly on the preference chart of opposing nations.

That is a reflection of how many people tend to consume international football; they watch their own nation and then rely on stereotypes when it comes to sides who they haven't been paying much attention to.

And scanning the Northern Ireland squad and where they play their football has led to a dismissive view of what they are capable of under a shrewd manager who knows how to prepare a side to get results.

O'Neill's men comfortably finished second in Group C behind a German side that won all 10 qualifying games. Northern Ireland took four points from the Czech Republic and finished four points ahead of them. Aside from the German games, their only other loss came on the final day away to Norway when they learned before kick-off that the outcome was meaningless - they were already assured of a playoff. Under O'Neill, their record against sides that are just below the top level has been very good.

They won their Euro 2016 qualifying group - ahead of Romania and Hungary with a nightmare campaign for top seeds Greece admittedly helping them - before going onto France where they were unlucky to lose to eventual semi-finalists Wales in the round of 16. They are a tough nut to crack.

Favourites flattered by qualifying campaign
Switzerland were feared ahead of the playoff draw because they took 27 points from a possible 30 and still missed out, which is fairly remarkable. On the flip side of that, however, they were in a weak group where the Faroe Islands ended up as fourth seeds. There was a certain efficiency in winning home and away against Hungary, the Faroes, Latvia and Andorra, yet it's hardly a terrifying record.

They were well beaten by Portugal on the final day in a game where they only needed a draw to advance to the finals. It could be argued that they were only in that position of strength because they had caught Portugal cold at the start of the campaign when they were coming off the back of winning Euro 2016.

Switzerland are a decent outfit; they have a healthy spread of players across top leagues - with 10 based in Bundesliga - and they have good quality defensively with the savvy of Juventus man Stephan Lichtsteiner and AC Milan's Ricardo Rodriguez they are strong in the full back department. Xherdan Shaqiri is a creative force, while they have a range of middling options in the striking department.

But Shaqiri aside they are short on flair players and can be one dimensional which would suit a Northern Irish team with a strong spine.

West Brom trio Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt give them strength in defensive areas, while Steven Davis will win his 100th cap in midfield. They are one of the older sides to have reached this phase of the competition, but they have a maturity that has allowed them to act on the homework their manager has given them.

It's true they will have to deal with an expectant crowd who can sense the opportunity of a lifetime is achievable and that can result in stagefright. But Northern Ireland have dealt with that responsibility under O'Neill and traders could well be making the mistake of underestimating the hosts.

Laying Switzerland at 2.34 is the recommended call - the natives should at least be capable of keeping it tight for long enough for punters to trade out if they want the opportunity.

Goals at a premium at Windsor Park
O'Neill does have European two-legged experience from his days as manager of League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers. His finest hour there - and the feat which probably convinced Northern Ireland to give him a go - was bringing the club to the Europa League group stages in 2011. That was achieved from a tie with Partizan Belgrade where the Dublin side was at home first. They did grab a late goal on their own patch to draw 1-1 and they then used the away goal rule to triumph after extra-time in Serbia courtesy of a stunning 2-1 win.

Granted, a 1-1 draw is not a good starting point for recommending an Under 1.5 Goals bet. But the point is that O'Neill knows this is about staying in the tie for 180 minutes so even if his team suffer a concession at Windsor Park, they are unlikely to lose all shape and take a gung-ho approach.

Similarly, if they manage to gain an advantage, they have the nous to hold onto it. Switzerland may well be confident they can get the job done in the return and take a 'what we have, we hold' approach. In all of these scenarios, the 2.42 about Under 1.5 Goals is worth an investment.

Goalless Draw a big player
Taking all the above into consideration, a fun play on the goalless draw at 7.00 could reap dividends or be greened up if this tight battle reaches half-time with an absence of goalscoring activity. It's not an inconceivable scenario.

Recommend Bets
Lay Switzerland @ 2.34
Back Under 1.5 Goals @ 2.42

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