Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill has warned Switzerland they face a mental examination in Belfast next month in the first leg of their World Cup play-off tie.
O’Neill was in Zurich for the play-off draw on Tuesday when his side learned that it would be the Swiss standing between them and a place at the World Cup, a tournament they last reached in 1986.
Given Northern Ireland were one of four unseeded teams, O’Neill’s preference had been to avoid Italy and Croatia, and he got his wish as ex-Spain and Real Madrid defender Fernando Hierro pitted them against Switzerland.
The Swiss won nine of their 10 group games but missed out on automatic qualification to Portugal having lost 2-0 in Lisbon earlier this month, with O’Neill mindful of the possible psychological impact.
“It’s a good draw, not an easy draw, but a good draw as it’s still a tie that we are capable of winning,” O’Neill said.
“Switzerland come into play-offs with nine victories, they lost the 10th game to Portugal and probably envisaged automatic qualification, and they have to pick themselves up a little bit.
“We knew the plays-off was always going to be our route to get to Russia. We’re in a good place and with the first leg being in Belfast, we have to test where they are mentally.
“It’s wrong to call it a favourable draw, but certainly beforehand we would have taken it.
“Switzerland are a very good team but possibly they don’t have the historical reputation of a European heavyweight like Italy or the world-class individuals that Croatia have.
“All in all we’re pleased, but we’ll have to be at our best. This is two games, there’s a massive prize at stake and we have to make sure we want it more than them.”
The first leg will be played at Windsor Park on Thursday, November 9 before the two meet again in Switzerland three days later.
Having such a short turnaround for the first encounter could be beneficial to O’Neill’s team given the majority of his squad will be in action for English clubs on the Saturday before.
For the Swiss, who have players based across the continent, the likes of captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez, Haris Seferovic and Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka will all feature on the Sunday and may not therefore link up for international duty until three days before the game.
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