Italy and Portugal likely to miss the 2022 World Cup – Update News Sport

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When the draw for the UEFA playoffs for the 2022 World Cup was completed on Friday, one thing dominated the headlines: Either Italy or Portugal would not be going to Qatar.

The winners of the last two editions of the European Championship failed to top their World Cup qualifying groups, missing out to Serbia and Switzerland respectively, and now might have to face each other for the right to progress to next year’s finals. That is if they overcome their “semi-final” playoff opponents of North Macedonia (for Italy) and Turkey (for Portugal).

For Italy, the situation is borderline embarrassing.

The Azzurri, less than six months on from their success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship, find themselves having to reach Qatar the hard way, and their fans might be starting to fear the worst if recent history is anything to go by.

After all, their country also failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged playoff, one of the darkest moments in Italy’s football history.

Italy’s stumble in the qualifiers is all the stranger as Roberto Mancini had sparked a revival that culminated in winning Euro 2020 in July on the back of a long unbeaten run. All looked rosy for the Italians as they returned to World Cup action in the fall.

Italy had started very strongly in Group C but found their path getting complicated after drawing twice in their last three games.

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Switzerland took full advantage of this, catching up and overtaking Italy in the standings and qualifying directly for the World Cup.

It was an epilogue that would have been hard to predict a few months ago, and the disappointment after the final whistle in Belfast, after Italy’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland, was evident on the faces of the entire team and coaching staff. Among the saddest was Jorginho, who in the dressing room could not hold back his tears, having missed a penalty in each of the two draws with Switzerland in the qualifiers. One successful conversion and it would be the Swiss sweating over progress to Qatar now.

For now, Mancini remains firmly in his post, with the Euro 2020 still fresh in everyone’s minds, and even his few critics have had sympathy for the spate of injuries the squad suffered ahead of the match against Northern Ireland.

The same cannot be said about Portugal.

Fernando Santos, their 67-year-old coach, remains the only one to give Portugal a title, but Euro 2016 grows distant with every passing year and the state of grace will not last forever.

In terms of results, his record is hardly a disaster, but neither has it been outstanding when you consider the talent that the football-crazy nation has at its disposal.

The fog around the coach is almost always based on poor quality football, especially given the caliber of players in the Portuguese squad at the moment.

Portugal’s best players grace some of Europe’s top clubs including Manchester United, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, PSG, Roma, among others. Many of them are the best players at these clubs. They are therefore the best of the best.

And yet the football played by the national team pales in comparison to their club exploits, and the Portuguese blame their coach for that.

The Luz Stadium was supposed to witness a celebration in front of 65,000 spectators when Serbia came to Lisbon for the final group qualifier, but instead, and at the end of a historic night, the visitors punished Cristiano Ronaldo and his colleagues in the dying meets of the match to win 2-1.

My sources in Portugal tell me that Santos could be approaching the end of his reign as coach of the Portuguese national team.

The Portuguese Football Federation has backed him up to the playoffs, but many supporters and members of the press no longer believe that he can get the best out of this group of players.

This was evident when, at the press conference after the Serbia debacle, a journalist asked Santos: “How do you explain the poor football that the National Team presents, given the talent it has at its disposal?”

Santos looked at the journalist. He swallowed dry, straightened his tie, and said nothing.

Portugal, of course, still possess arguably world football’s greatest trump card.

Whatever lack of confidence there is in the coach, the nation can always count on Ronaldo to inspire his team in such moments.

It would be a shame not to see either Italy or Portugal in the World Cup, but sadly that is now inevitable.

In March we will know which one will miss out, if not, sensationally, both.

The last two European champions, Italy and Portugal, could face off for a spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after they were drawn on Friday in the same path for the playoffs.

The 12 teams — 10 of which finished runners-up in their groups — were split into three four-team paths, each with its own semi-finals and final. Seeded teams were guaranteed a home game in the semi-finals. The winning team from each path qualifies for the World Cup in Qatar, meaning Italy and Portugal cannot both reach the tournament.

Italy, who won the Euros earlier this year, and 2016 European champions Portugal will play their semi-final games at home against North Macedonia and Turkey, respectively. Should the two heavyweights advance, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will have home advantage in the final.

“It could have been a little better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini told RAI2. “As we would have gladly avoided them [Portugal], probably they too would have avoided us. We will have to play a great match [against North Macedonia], then we will see in the final.”

Failure to advance would be a major blow for four-times World Cup winners Italy, who did not reach the 2018 edition when they were knocked out by Sweden in the playoffs — the first time they had missed out on qualification in 60 years.

“We already did it last time and we of course [think] that we can do it again. It won’t be easy against the Czechs, though,” Sweden manager Janne Andersson said.

North Macedonia head coach Blagoja Milevski said they had “massive respect” for Italy, who had “dispelled the stereotype” of being a defensive team in their Euros triumph.

“We have to adapt to the challenge and make the most of our own quality as we want to show that we deserved our playoff berth,” Milevski said.

“Italy are the favourites, but we have shown in the past that we can play good football home and away.”

Portugal captain Ronaldo, the leading scorer in men’s international football, has scored in the last four World Cups but the 36-year-old’s side must get past Turkey first.

“We can’t count them out. They always put on a fight against their rivals,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said of Turkey, refusing to discuss a potential final with Italy.

“We can’t look back and analyse now what they did in the Euros [where Turkey lost all three group games]. We need to look in depth at the way they play, but what we really need is to be prepared to those matches.”

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‘GREAT OPPORTUNITY’

Wales, who are looking to make their first World Cup in 64 years, were drawn in the same path as Scotland, who have not qualified since 1998.

“We’ve given ourselves a great opportunity. We’ve worked ever so hard to finish second and get that home draw. We’ve got everything to play for,” Wales manager Robert Page told the BBC.

Older Wales fans still get high blood pressure thinking about the 1977 World Cup qualifier with Scotland.

Played at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, the Scots took the lead with a penalty awarded for handball even though replays showed it was Scotland striker Joe Jordan who handled.

Scotland won 2-0 to earn a place at the World Cup in Argentina the following year. Eight years later, Scotland earned a vital draw in Cardiff to book a place at Mexico ’86, but the celebrations were cut short after manager Jock Stein suffered a heart-attack on the touchline and died in the changing rooms shortly afterwards.

The playoff semi-finals and finals will be played from March 24-29.

FIFA also held the draw for the intercontinental playoffs where the Asian qualifier will play a team from South America while one from the CONCACAF region faces Oceania’s qualifier.

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