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Sweden and Denmark are 'derby' pick of the Uefa Euro 2016 play-offs

No clear favourites are emerging in the battle of Scandinavian rivals given their close rankings in round of first-leg ties

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 November, 2015, 12:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 November, 2015, 12:06am

This week's most competitive internationals are the play-offs for the last four places at the Euro 2016 finals and none more so than the "derby" between Sweden and Denmark, which rounds off the first-leg ties tonight before the return matches start tomorrow.

On paper, this is the closest of the four play-offs, with the oddsmakers barely able to separate the two teams in terms of which one will qualify for next summer's tournament in France.

Sweden are marginally favoured, even though that goes against Denmark's higher position in the Fifa rankings, which have been a good guide in past play-offs.

The dangerman for Sweden is clearly Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was the joint third highest scorer in qualifying with eight goals

That lesson was reiterated in the first play-off on Thursday, when Hungary appeared to upset the odds to win in Norway, but in reality merely confirmed their superior position in the rankings.

Hungary are 33rd, making them the third-best of the countries involved in the play-offs, whereas Norway are 46th, with only Slovenia ranked lower among the eight teams.

The gap between Denmark (ranked 35th) and Sweden (45th) is the smallest in the four play-offs, which explains the difficulty in identifying a clear favourite, but on form and rankings the Danes look hard to beat.

The issue with Denmark is that they are a low-scoring side, with only eight goals in eight games in qualifying group I, in which they finished third behind Portugal and Albania.

It was a strangely low-scoring group overall, with Portugal managing only 11 goals despite their attack being led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Albania just 10.

READ ALL OUR COVERAGE ON EURO 2016

Lack of a cutting edge ultimately cost Denmark their chance of automatic qualification after they failed to score in their last three group games, allowing Albania to sneak past them in the final round of games.

The plus point for Denmark was that their only two defeats in 10 group matches came against Portugal, currently fourth in the world rankings. With the games against Sweden likely to be closely fought in the mould of many derbies, Denmark's sound defence and organisation ought to serve them well.

The signs are that Sweden's defence is less secure, as they conceded in all six games against the strongest three teams in group G, which was dominated by clear winners Austria with Russia moving into second place after Sweden's disastrous 4-1 home defeat against Austria near the end of the campaign.

The dangerman for Sweden is clearly Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was the joint third highest scorer in qualifying with eight goals (the same number scored by the whole of the Denmark squad) and keeping him quiet is the top priority for Denmark in tonight's first leg in Stockholm.

Denmark have a good chance of a positive result and rate the pick on the handicap. Their last defeat against a side outside the international elite in a competitive away match was eight years ago against Northern Ireland and they have lost only three out of 18 since then (the two against Portugal and one against Italy).

That run includes an away win in Sweden (1-0 in 2009) and they achieved the same result at home four months later to beat their neighbours to a place at the 2010 World Cup.

Tonight's other play-off seems something of a formality for Ukraine at home to Slovenia, except that the same would have been said the last time they faced off for a place in the Euro finals in 1999.

On that occasion Ukraine lost 2-1 away in the first leg and could only draw 1-1 at home in the return match. Slovenia's coach for that historic success was Srecko Katanec, who is in charge again having returned in 2013.

Slovenia have continued to make a habit of upsetting the odds in play-offs, having beaten Romania and Russia to a place in the World Cup finals tournaments of 2002 and 2010. The only country to have overcome them in a play-off was Croatia in qualification for Euro 2004.

Katanec's side merit respect but the Fifa rankings (Slovenia are 64th against Ukraine in 36th) suggest they have a significant gap to bridge against Ukraine, who won six and lost only one of their eight group games discounting their two defeats against group C winners Spain.

The crucial result was Ukraine's 1-0 home defeat by group runners-up Slovakia in their opening game, which left them playing catch-up, and they must guard against a similar slip-up tonight.

A low-scoring Ukraine victory - 1-0 or 2-0 being the best options - looks the most likely outcome.

Shortlist: Ukraine, Doncaster, Port Vale.