ZURICH • Sweden's Janne Andersson was probably the most positive coach out of seven of his counterparts when the World Cup European play-off draw was made yesterday in Zurich.
The Swedes were drawn against four-time winners Italy while Ireland take on Denmark.
Northern Ireland will face Switzerland and Croatia will tackle Greece in the other two-legged zonal play-offs to be played between Nov 9 and 14.
"Italy was perhaps the toughest team, but that's the way it is with a draw," Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist is quoted as saying by Swedish tabloid Expressen.
But Andersson was having none of it. "It's two tough games but it would have been the same with other countries. I'm happy we know now. Now we can start work," the 55-year-old said, as reported by the BBC.
"I haven't thought so much about Italy. I haven't put too much energy into it. Their history is good, they've got good experience. We will go for it."
However, the odds will be stacked against Sweden. The two nations have met on 22 occasions, with the Italians winning 10 to the Swedes' six, and six draws.
BRING THEM ON
Switzerland had a great campaign though their group was one of the easiest. Our job is to make their life as difficult as possible.
MICHAEL O'NEILL, Northern Ireland coach, who are up for a fight after finishing runners-up to Germany in their group.
In recent times, the Azzurri have also proved to be the better team, winning 1-0 in a group-stage clash at Euro 2016.
WORLD CUP 2018 PLAY-OFFS
• Northern Ireland v Switzerland
• Croatia v Greece
• Denmark v Ireland
• Sweden v Italy
1st leg: Nov 9. 2nd leg: Nov 14
ASIA v NORTH/CENTRAL AMERICA
• Australia v Honduras
1st leg: Nov 10. 2nd leg: Nov 15
OCEANIA v SOUTH AMERICA
• New Zealand v Peru
1st leg: Nov 11. 2nd leg: Nov 15
Italy, who will travel to Sweden for the first leg of the tie, are also unbeaten against their opponents since a friendly in 1998, and have not lost a competitive game to the Scandinavian nation since 1987.
"We had the toughest qualification group against Netherlands and against France and we played some really good games. If we can play at the level, then we can beat any team in the world, including Italy," Andersson added.
His opposite number Gian Piero Ventura did not attend the draw at Fifa headquarters.
Gabriele Oriali, the Italy team manager who was in attendance in place of Ventura, said: "I think it could have been better. But we accept this draw. We are Italy and we shouldn't be afraid of anyone."
Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill admitted he faced a tough task against the Swiss as he bids to steer his country to the Finals for the first time since 1986.
The Ulstermen will play at home in the first leg.
"Switzerland had a great campaign though their group was one of the easiest. Our job is to make their life as difficult as possible," he said. "Having played Germany twice in the group it will set us up nicely for the match. Our aim is to take a lead to Switzerland."
Ireland need to keep up the form they showed at the end of qualifying when they eliminated Wales to reach the play-offs, their coach Martin O'Neill said. They have the advantage of hosting Denmark in the second leg.
He said: "Naturally, we're just pleased to be in the draw. Being unseeded means it was always going to be a difficult tie. We're delighted to be in it.
"I know the Denmark manager (Age Hareide), we used to play together. It will be an interesting confrontation.
"If you ask most coaches, you want the second game at home. But with the rules like extra time, it gives the away team that chance to score in 120 minutes.
"We have momentum and that's important. We won our last two games to get here. I'm now concerned with the next couple of weeks and making sure my players don't get injuries at club level."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS