Buffon's career hinging on a playoff

Should Italy lose to Sweden across two legs, the legendary goalkeeper could hang his boots.

Skipper Buffon's career has come back to square one as the 39-year-old made his international debut in a World Cup playoff in Russia in 1997.    -  Getty Images

With 23 teams team already qualified including the likes of Argentina, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria among others, nine more places are up for grabs for next year's FIFA World Cup in Russia. 

Of the nine places, three are reserved for Africa and they will not be decided via a playoff.  Six playoff matchups battled across home and away, will be held across the globe to decide which teams have the right to attend next year's showpiece event with Europe seeing four blockbuster games.

Stockholm syndrome?

The headline fixture in the Europe will be Italy vs Sweden on Friday night. Four-time winners Italy must overcome a very competent Sweden, a team the Azzurri haven't lost to since 1988.  Italy has missed out on the World Cup only once, in 1958, and ironically the event was hosted by Sweden. 

A World Cup without Italy and universally loved Gianluigi Buffon is the worst case scenario but its recent form has not been the best. The Azzurri have won only two of their last four matches and some below-par performances include the 2-0 humbling by Spain, at the Santiago Bernabeu, and an embarrassing 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia. 

Sweden's form might worry the Italians as it is unbeaten in seven competitive home games, drawing only one of them. 

However, after missing out on the two last tournaments, it could be three in a row for Sweden for the very first time. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic's countrymen would like to believe the pressure is on Italy as it hasn't registered a win in Stockholm since 1912.

Big name players in danger of missing out:

Denmark: Christian Erisken, Pione Sisto, Kasper Schmeichel 

Italy: Daniele de Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonuci, Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, Simone Zaza 

Greece: Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Kostas Manolas

Republic of Ireland: Seamus Coleman, Harry Arter, James McClean

Sweden: Victor Lindelof 

Croatia: Ivan Rakitic 

Northern Ireland: Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty

Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri , Granit Xhaka

Buffon at a crossroads

Skipper Buffon's career has come back to square one as the 39-year-old made his international debut in a World Cup playoff in Russia in 1997. 

Should Italy lose to Sweden across two legs, the legendary goalkeeper could hang his boots. And if Italy progresses, he could be the first player to feature in six World Cup squads, and more importantly, call time on his career from where it all began for him.

"It’s a nice connection but I would have gladly done without it,” Buffon was quoted as saying. ”It’s always a risk. The important thing is that the result is the same as 20 years ago. We have to be wary of these games against Sweden.

“When I first started I was probably less respectful of opponents. But after many victories, some mistakes, some losses and many lessons, I have matured.

"I’ll go into this challenge with a clear idea and I’ll be calm.”

Luka Modric is another big name player that is in danger of missing out on the World Cup, and at 32 there might not be a next one for the midfield maestro.  However, Modric and Co. will start favourites against Greece and will play its second leg at home. 

Croatia's track record at a playoff - either for a World Cup or a European Championship - is impressive, having won all four of its ties. Also, Croatia is not short of tournament experience having participated in nine out of 11 major finals as an independent nation.

Other fixtures:

Northern Ireland vs Switzerland

Republic of Ireland vs Denmark

Honduras vs Australia

New Zealand vs Peru

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