World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (225)

Italy have done all this before.

The Azzurri were World Cup regulars – and contenders – until remarkably failing to qualify for the first time since the 1958 tournament when they were beaten by Sweden in the play-offs for Russia 2018.

Of course, Italy feared a repeat when they were consigned to the play-off route again for Qatar 2022, but a potential final against Portugal was surely of greater concern than a home semi with North Macedonia.

Sensationally, however, the visitors stunned the European champions in Palermo, where Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute blast secured the unlikeliest of 1-0 wins.

It means Italy are yet again featuring on a list of shock World Cup absentees.

ITALY/SPAIN 1958

Until these past two upsets, Italy's only failure to qualify for the World Cup had come in the 1950s. Needing to beat Northern Ireland in their final game of the three-team group, the Azzurri slumped to a 2-1 loss in Belfast. More surprising was the absence of Spain, as a team of legends including Alfredo Di Stefano and Luis Suarez missed out on a place in Sweden. A draw with Switzerland and defeat to Scotland meant that 4-1 victories in both return matches were not enough to salvage their hopes.

ENGLAND 1974

England were on top of the world in 1966 having lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home turf. It remains the Three Lions' only triumph at a World Cup and, eight years later, England were not even at the tournament held in West Germany. In a three-team group with Wales and Poland, a 2-0 defeat and 1-1 draw with the latter meant Alf Ramsey's side did not qualify. Twenty years later, England again disappointed as they failed to qualify for USA '94 under Graham Taylor.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA 1978

Having won the European Championship two years previously with their attractive brand of football, there were high hopes for Czechoslovakia heading into qualifying for the tournament in Argentina. However, battles of Britain proved their downfall as losses in Wales and Scotland scuppered their hopes of adding World Cup glory to their European triumph.

NETHERLANDS 1986

After reaching the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978, there was a down period for Netherlands, who missed out in '82 and also failed to qualify for Euro '84. A crop of players including Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco van Basten were expected to bring about a turnaround in fortunes for the Dutch ahead of the next World Cup in Mexico. However, they had to settle for a play-off against neighbours Belgium after finishing second in their qualifying group, and Georges Grun's header with just five minutes left on the clock saw them crash out on away goals. Netherlands also failed to qualify in 2002 and were not in Russia four years ago.

FRANCE 1994

Les Bleus had failed to qualify for Italia '90 having finished third in 1986. That failure was accepted as something of a transitional period, but a star-studded team featuring the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were unable to secure the necessary result against Bulgaria in their final qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. France led through Eric Cantona but were pegged back by an Emil Kostadinov leveller before half-time. Gerard Houllier's side looked set to cling on to the point that would see them through until David Ginola infamously gave the ball away with an ill-judged cross in the final minute that allowed Kostadinov to make it 2-1 on the break, leaving French hopes dashed.

EGYPT 2010

Incredibly, Egypt's appearance at the 2018 World Cup was their first since 1990. That is despite their 2000s domination of the Africa Cup of Nations, with three consecutive victories between 2006 and 2010. Their failure to reach South Africa 12 years ago was arguably the greatest disappointment. After finishing with an identical record to Algeria, a play-off was needed to separate the two, with Egypt falling to a 1-0 defeat to extend their wait for a return to the global stage.

CHILE 2018

The depth of talent in South America means there are always likely to be notable casualties, but even then the two-time defending Copa America champions would have expected to contend on a global stage in Russia. However, Chile could only finish sixth in an incredibly tight group, without even a play-off to show for their efforts while Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to qualification with a hat-trick against Ecuador – his own participation in the finals having been in question until that point.

Italy were "destroyed" by their shock defeat to North Macedonia, with Giorgio Chiellini saying their failure to qualify for the World Cup opened "a great void". 

The reigning European champions fell to a surprise 1-0 defeat at home to North Macedonia, with former Palermo attacker Aleksandar Trajkovski netting a surprise winner for the visitors in the 92nd minute. 

Italy have now failed to qualify for two straight World Cups. They will not be able to feature on that stage until 2026, with their only win in the competition since they triumphed in 2006 coming against England in the 2014 group stage.

The defeat to North Macedonia marked an incredible turnaround in fortunes for Italy, who won Euro 2020 as part of a 37-game undefeated streak that ended in October – a month after they dropped valuable points against Bulgaria and Switzerland in their World Cup qualifying group. 

Roberto Mancini's side ended up missing out on top spot to Switzerland after two further draws, and their capitulation at the Renzo Barbera was tough for Chiellini to take. 

"It's hard to explain. There is great disappointment. We played a great match but just couldn't score," Chiellini told Rai Sport. 

"We weren't presumptuous. We were missing something. We made mistakes from September until today and we paid for them. 

"I am proud of this team, but it's obvious we are disappointed and destroyed. We have to start again. 

"It's difficult to comment so quickly. There will remain a great void and I hope this void will give the energy needed to restart. We have to start against to win again and get back to the top of the European Championship and in four years go to the World Cup." 

Veteran defender Chiellini refused to confirm whether the loss would prove to be his final match for Italy, saying "now is not the right moment."

Italy will miss out on a second successive World Cup after Aleksandar Trajkovski's stoppage-time strike gave North Macedonia a sensational 1-0 victory at Renzo Barbera.

Having also failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia, the European champions will not go for glory in Qatar this year after suffering their first World Cup qualifying defeat on home soil.

Roberto Mancini's side dominated the game, but they were made to pay for their lack of a cutting edge in a dramatic finale.

Trajkovski was North Macedonia’s hero, beating Gianluigi Donnarumma from 25 years in the second minute of stoppage time set up a showdown with Portugal for a place in the World Cup.

Burak Yilmaz's late penalty miss proved costly as Turkey fell to a 3-1 loss to Portugal in their 2022 World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final on Thursday.  

Otavio scored his second international goal in just his third cap to put Portugal in front, with Diogo Jota doubling their advantage before half-time.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey after the hour mark and had a chance to take the game to extra time by making it 2-2 after referee Daniel Siebert awarded the visitors a penalty for Jose Fonte clipping Enes Unal.  

However, Yilmaz's spot-kick clipped the crossbar on its way over and Matheus Nunes rubbed salt into the wound in stoppage time, ensuring it was Portugal who advanced to the final against North Macedonia, who earned a shock 1-0 triumph over European champions Italy.

Portugal started brightly and took the lead when Otavio scored on the follow-up after Bernardo Silva's shot was tipped onto the post by Ugurcan Cakir. 

Turkey responded positively to going behind but Portugal doubled their advantage before half-time when Jota guided Otavio's exquisite delivery into the bottom-right corner with a pinpoint header.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey when he stabbed a cool finish past Diogo Costa in the 66th minute after an excellent one-two with Cengiz Under.  

The game looked destined to be heading for extra time when the referee pointed to the spot after a trip to the pitchside monitor with five minutes remaining, but Yilmaz was unable to convert. 

It proved to be Turkey's undoing as substitute Matheus put the result beyond doubt when he finished off a pass from Rafael Leao in the 94th minute to send Portugal through.

Gareth Bale has declared himself fit to start for Wales in Thursday's World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final against Austria, despite his limited playing time for Real Madrid.

The 32-year-old was not part of Madrid's squad for Sunday's 4-0 defeat to fierce rivals Barcelona, which head coach Carlo Ancelotti put down to illness.

Bale has played in just five of Madrid's 42 matches in all competitions this season, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of three whole games.

Despite repeated setbacks, the former Tottenham star has played 233 minutes for Wales across four games this season, helping to keep his side's qualifying dreams alive.

And Bale insists he is capable of lasting the distance against Austria, with the winners going on to face either Scotland or the Czech Republic in June's rescheduled final.

"Obviously it's normal to have some [injury] niggles now and again," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference. 

"I've been good. I've been training for what, the last two and a half months. I got some minutes maybe three weeks ago or so. So now I'm in very good shape. 

"I'm obviously in a lot better shape than I was for the last camp, where I'd been out for about three months. I've been training now over the last couple of days. 

"I'm ready to play whatever's necessary. And yeah, we'll give it everything we can."

 

While Ancelotti implied Bale's most recent absence was down to illness, reports in Spain suggested the forward ruled himself out of contention because of a back strain.

Asked to clarify why he was not part of the squad to face Barcelona, Bale said: "I don't need to. I don't need to tell anyone what was up.

"I don't need to give anyone anything to use against me. Everything is fine now, I have no issue."

Bale earned cap number 100 for Wales in November's win over Belarus and has scored 36 goals and assisted 23 more over that period.

And after representing his country at Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, Bale is now fully focused on leading his side to a first World Cup finals since 1958.

"For sure, the Austria game will be one of biggest I've played in," he said. "Qualifying for a World Cup is something I want to achieve, as do the fans and the country. 

"We need to take it in our stride like we always do. Everyone will step up – it's what we do best.

"To get to the World Cup with Wales would be an incredible achievement. We'll fight for our country like we always do."

Roberto Mancini says Italy will not look beyond Thursday's play-off semi-final with North Macedonia as they aim to avoid more World Cup qualifying heartbreak.

Italy, then under the management of Gian Piero Ventura, failed to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time since 1958 after losing to Sweden in the play-offs.

The Azzurri bounced back from that disappointment by winning the European Championships last year for only the second time.

Just eight months on from that triumph, Mancini's men are once again relying on the play-offs to help them reach Qatar 2022 after finishing behind Switzerland in their group.

Should Italy overcome North Macedonia in Palermo, they then face a showdown with either Portugal or Turkey – who meet in Porto on Thursday – in next week's final.

Italy are strong favourites to beat North Macedonia, who are 61 places below their opponents in the FIFA rankings, but Mancini does not consider his side favourites.

"We all start the same; each game is 0-0 and anything can happen in those 90 minutes," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference.

"It's an obvious thing to say, but you have to play each game. I don't think there are favourites in these matches.

"North Macedonia defend well and have good technique. Don't forget they won away to Germany in the qualifiers. We need patience, but it starts from 0-0."

A large core of Italy's current contingent were also part of the squad that missed out on a place at Russia 2018, but Mancini is unsure if that works in his side's favour.

"I don't know if it can act as an advantage," he said. "This is part of the life of a sportsman. There are exciting moments in your career and others of disappointment.

"We just have to be focused on what we have to do. Italy know how to play football and we have to just think about ourselves, not other things."

Fernando Santos is confident Portugal can handle the pressure of competing in the World Cup qualifying play-offs.

The Selecao face Turkey in the 'Path C' semi-finals in Porto on Thursday, with the winner of that tie set to take on Italy or North Macedonia next Tuesday.

Portugal have been made to do things the hard way after losing 2-1 to Serbia in November, meaning they missed out on automatic qualification at their opponents' expense.

However, Santos insists the winner-takes-all nature of this week's play-offs can help get the best out of his players, having prevailed in two previous finals during his stewardship.

"What has happened has always been a positive sign," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference. "In the two previous finals we've played, we won both.

"In these decisive games we have given a positive response, except in the last game [against Serbia]. The players are experienced and will not be put off.

"We fought hard in those previous finals to make 11 million people happy. Tomorrow, in this next 'final', we want to do so again."

Portugal won Euro 2016 and the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, beating France and the Netherlands in those respective finals.

The European heavyweights have a big task on their hands if they are to reach Qatar 2022, though, with Turkey and then potentially Italy awaiting over the next six days.

A failure to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1998 could cost Santos his job, but the 67-year-old is not thinking about his future ahead of crucial games.

"That's not the question," said Santos, who has been in charge of the national team since 2014.

"I understand why I'm asked, but I'm totally focused on what we have to play for tomorrow and we know what we have to do. 

"The team is highly focused and motivated. We know that we are here because of our responsibility. We have to win to be in the World Cup.

"All our focus is on this game we have tomorrow against Turkey."

The Czech Republic national team have had to postpone their departure for Sweden, throwing preparations for their World Cup qualification play-off into disarray.

Due to technical faults with the plane on which they were supposed to depart, Jaroslav Silhavy's side has been delayed for 24 hours, meaning they will have to arrive only on the day before their critical play-off in Solna.

A statement read: "The Czech national team has to change the program. We can’t travel to Sweden due to a technical defect on the plane today and we will move to Sweden during Wednesday."

Originally scheduled to leave following their Tuesday morning training session for acclimatisation and rest, this complication compounds the fact they will be without injured stars Patrik Schick and Vladimir Coufal.

The winner of Thursday's playoff is set to face Poland next Tuesday, to secure a berth in Qatar.

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has tested positive for coronavirus ahead of the friendlies against Denmark and Germany.

Van Gaal is isolating in Woudschoten after returning a positive test on Monday.

Danny Blind, Henk Fraser and Frans Hoek will take on Van Gaal's duties until the Oranje boss is able to link up with the squad again.

Netherlands face Denmark at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on Saturday and take on Germany in Amsterdam three days later.

PSV defender Jordan Teze was last week called up for the upcoming friendlies and is poised to make his debut.

The Oranje qualified for the World Cup in Qatar this year by winning Group G with a 2-0 win over Norway in November.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini expressed his optimism for World Cup qualification as he called on his Euro 2020-winning side to prove the doubters wrong again.

The Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but followed that up by winning the delayed European Championships last year.

Italy are now staring at a familiar fate, however, after not progressing through their World Cup qualifying group, leaving them having to beat North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final to keep their Qatar 2022 hopes alive.

Mancini's side would then have to negotiate past Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey in the final, but the former Manchester City boss spoke optimistically before the clash with North Macedonia in Palermo.

"We should not take the first game for granted. It won't be easy and, in case we win, we'll have four days to prepare for the final," he told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

"We have built a solid base, we are positive and we must think that everything will go well. We have two tough games ahead. We were not supposed to be here, but it happens to struggle sometimes.

"We must continue playing as we've always done. We didn't reach our targets by coincidence. We didn't want to play these games, but the lads are feeling well and that's important.

"I am optimistic because I have players who won the Euros starting from nothing when nobody believed in it. We must think about what we did to have more self-confidence, the team is solid and with quality.

"Our target is to win the World Cup, and in order to do it, we must win the next two games. We want to go to the World Cup to win it."

Mancini has handed maiden call-ups to Luiz Felipe and Joao Pedro, while Lorenzo Insigne and Nicolo Barella made the cut despite underperforming for their clubs.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, whose second-leg blunder proved costly in Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League last-16 loss against Real Madrid, is another familiar face among the Azzurri ranks, and Mancini is backing in the players he has selected.

"I am not worried, they [Insigne and Barella] have always done well with the national team," Mancini said when asked about the pair's form with Napoli and Inter respectively.

"Of course, there are highs and lows during a season. [Giorgio] Chiellini is feeling quite well and it's good that he played a little. 

"He probably won't play two games, but we'll talk and decide together. He knows his condition and he will tell me if he can play two games in five days.

Pressed whether Donnarumma's form was concerning, Mancini responded: "Absolutely not, it's better to have him with us than against."

Mancini also has Domenico Berardi and Gianluca Scamacca to call upon in his frontline, though he is slightly light on numbers at the back due to injuries, with right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo having to be replaced in the squad by Mattia De Sciglio.

"Berardi and Scamacca are doing well, but I can't reveal the line-up today. We'll make our assessments starting from tomorrow. Except for defenders, the others are feeling quite well," Mancini said.

"I don't think there are big problems in midfield and attack."

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