- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ZURICH (AP) - Four-time champion Italy will have to beat Sweden in a European playoff to qualify for its 15th straight World Cup.

A regular at every World Cup since 1958, the Italians were drawn Tuesday to play in Sweden in the first leg of the playoff on Nov. 10.

“A World Cup without Italy isn’t a World Cup,” said Italy team manager Gabriele Oriali, representing coach Gian Piero Ventura at the draw at FIFA headquarters.

Still, Oriali - who played on Italy’s 1982 winning team - cautioned that “history and tradition don’t go out onto the pitch.”

In other pairings, it was: Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland; Croatia vs. Greece; and Denmark vs. Ireland. The first legs will be played from Nov. 9-11, with the return games from Nov. 12-14.

The four winners will enter the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Sweden got the opponent which coaches of the other three unseeded teams all said they wanted to avoid.

“If it’s worst or easiest or whatever, it doesn’t matter today because it’s Italy we’re going to play,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.

Four years ago, Sweden also got a tough draw and was eliminated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s three second-leg goals for Portugal in Stockholm.

Switzerland was the highest-ranked team in the draw, and won nine straight games in qualifying until a final and decisive loss to Portugal this month.

“I feel their qualification group was possibly one of the easier groups,” Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill said. “It’s a game I believe we can win.”

Northern Ireland has not been at a World Cup since 1986, and its neighbor has missed three straight editions - including elimination in a controversial November 2009 playoff against France.

Ireland coach Martin O’Neill said he was also pleased to avoid Croatia’s “star-studded side” to play a Denmark team coached by Age Hareide, a former teammate 35 years ago.

Martin O’Neill picked out Christian Eriksen, the in-form Tottenham playmaker, as a danger ahead of a first leg in Copenhagen.

“If you consider the Danish run just recently, he has masterminded nearly all their proceedings,” Martin O’Neill said.

Croatia and Greece, which both came through playoffs to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, could generate the most heated atmosphere of the four pairings.

“There is a great rivalry between both countries,” said Michael Skibbe, the German coach of Greece, who said his team’s style of tough defense and counter-attacks matched well with Croatia’s stylish midfield.

“Maybe this is for us quite a good choice,” Skibbe said. “Every player of my team knows exactly what the opponent is going to do. They will not surprise us.”

The eight teams had the best records as runners-up in the nine European qualifying groups.


More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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