Northern Ireland relish underdog tag for World Cup play-off

Jamie Ward (Getty Images)
Jamie Ward (Getty Images)

London - Northern Ireland forward Jamie Ward says the team will thrive as underdogs against Switzerland in the Russia 2018 play-offs as they seek to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986.

Michael O'Neill's side missed out on being seeded for the draw last month by virtue of their world ranking, so knew they would face either the Swiss, Italy, Croatia or Denmark over two legs to determine their Russia fate.

Northern Ireland, ranked 23rd by FIFA, take on the 11th-ranked Swiss in Belfast on Thursday, with the return leg on November 12 in Basel.

Nottingham Forest's Ward, back in the fold for the first time since March after overcoming a calf problem, says Switzerland will have to handle the expectations.

Vladimir Petkovic's team arrived in Belfast on Tuesday ahead of the first leg, and Ward said: "They've got to take their chances. Everyone is expecting them to win in the football world.

"They're obviously the seeded team, so the pressure's more on them than us. We're always great as the underdogs, so I think it was a bit of a bonus us not being seeded.

"If you're seeded, you get a little more pressure on yourself so we'll go into this game as underdogs again. Hopefully we can be worthy winners."

"If we play the way we can play, I don't see why we can't take a lead out there or at least a positive result," he added.

Should O'Neill's team find a way past the Swiss, they would end a 32-year exile from the World Cup finals and become the first Northern Irish side in history to make back-to-back major tournaments after appearing at Euro 2016.

With Wales and Scotland already out of the running and Ireland involved in their own play-off against Denmark, Ward feels the Northern Irish are still not getting the recognition they warrant.

"I think people see it as it's Northern Ireland and they've not done well for a long time, but on the other side they will go and buy players from the Republic squad," he added.

"Premier League clubs are happy to do that. We're just as good as them but it's obviously someone taking a risk or a chance on us and letting us prove we're worth playing at the next level."

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