Northern Ireland vs Switzerland Preview: Michael O'Neill's side looking to make home advantage count in play-off first leg

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland side will be looking to make home advantage count in the first leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off round as they take on Switzerland at Windsor Park on Thursday evening.

Northern Ireland vs Switzerland Preview: Michael O'Neill's side looking to make home advantage count in play-off first leg
Northern Ireland vs Switzerland Preview: Michael O'Neill's side looking to make home advantage count in play-off first leg. (picture: Getty Images / Charles McQuillan)

Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland side will be looking to make home advantage count in the first leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off round as they take on Switzerland at Windsor Park on Thursday evening.

Northern Ireland last played in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match away at Norway in which they were beaten 1-0. An own-goal from Chris Brunt condemned O'Neill's side to defeat but they were already aware of their progress to the play-offs due to Scotland's failure to beat Slovenia in the game earlier that day. 

As for Switzerland, their last match was also a qualifying game in the last international break which saw them beaten 2-0 by Portugal away from home. An own-goal from Johan Djourou and a second-half strike from André Silva were enough to secure the three points for the home side and force Switzerland to settle for a play-off place. 

Can Northern Ireland qualify for a World Cup for first time since 1986?

Northern Ireland ended up finishing their qualifying campaign by securing second place in Group C with world champions Germany securing the automatic qualification spot. They managed to finish above the likes of Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino and now have a fantastic opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. 

Switzerland will without doubt prove stern opposition over two legs but O'Neill believes his side has enough to go through and secure a place in Russia next summer. He has urged his side to focus on their own strengths rather than worry about the opposition. 

Their performance in France during EURO 2016 will give all the players and supporters belief that they can make history again. After putting so much work and effort into their qualifying campaign, they will want to make sure they do not let themselves down in the next couple of weeks and go on to secure qualification which would mean so much to the country. 

Switzerland manager Vladimir Petković must be stunned by the fact his side were unable to qualify despite winning nine of their 10 qualifying matches. Their Group B top of the table clash with Portugal in the final round of games ultimately decided their fate and they will now be fully focused on securing qualification through the play-offs. 

They come into this play-off encounter as favourites to progress through due to the significant amount of quality in their squad. They have the ability to tear teams apart on their day, shown by their 5-2 win against Hungary in October. Northern Ireland will have to keep the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri quiet over the two legs if they are to secure a place in Russia. 

Last time they met

Northern Ireland have faced Switzerland four times in the past and have a good record against them. They have won two of those games having also drawn one and lost one. Their most recent encounter came in 2004 as the sides cancelled each other out in a 0-0 draw at the Stade de Suisse

Can Northern Ireland keep Shaqiri quiet? (picture: Getty Images / Fabrice Coffini
Can Northern Ireland keep Shaqiri quiet? (picture: Getty Images / Fabrice Coffrini)

Team news 

O'Neill has a number of players back in contention for this one which will be a real boost. Sunderland midfielder Paddy McNair, Nottingham Forest forward Jamie Ward and Hearts defender Aaron Hughes are all challenging for a place in the starting line-up. Steven Davis could be set for a special landmark as if he could make his 100th appearance for his country on Thursday night.  

As for Switzerland, they look set to be without defender Djourou and midfielder Valon Behrami as they are suffering with knee and thigh injuries respectively. However, despite these absences, they will still be expected to have too much quality for Northern Ireland to contend with.