Four years on from Italy’s darkest moment, it could be about to happen again for the Azzurri. (More Football News)
Italy was held to 0-0 against Northern Ireland in their final group match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers on Monday, while Switzerland beat Bulgaria 4-0 to clinch top spot in Group C and a place in FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
For European champion Italy it’s the playoffs again. Italy lost a playoff to Sweden in 2017 — four years ago almost to the day — and failed to qualify for the last World Cup.
A revival had been seen under Roberto Mancini, who led the Azzurri to the Euro 2020 trophy in July, but they could miss out again in football's premier tournament.
But Mancini is adamant that won’t happen.
“I am completely confident. We’ll get there in March and maybe we’ll win it too, who knows,” the Italy coach said.
FIFA will make the playoffs draw on November 26 in Zurich and teams will need to advance past two opponents to reach the FIFA World Cup 2022. Runners-up with the six best records will be drawn to play at home first in the semifinals.
The three winners of the playoffs finals on March 29 will complete the lineup of 13 European teams in the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
It could have all been so different if Italy had Jorginho not missed crucial penalties for Italy in each of the draws against Switzerland. Italy also drew with Bulgaria as it has stuttered at times since beating England to win Euro 2020.
“It’s a pity, because it’s a group that should have been won before tonight,” Mancini said. “We have to get back what made us stand out until today.
“We missed two penalties in the decisive matches and it’s clear that mistakes of that kind put us in difficulty. We should have won against Bulgaria easily but the two penalties against Switzerland hurt us, we could have easily won those matches.”
Italy and Switzerland went into their final match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers level on points but with the Azzurri leading Switzerland 11-9 on goal difference, the first tiebreaker.
Italy knew they needed goals in Belfast but also knew they would be tough against a Northern Ireland side that were unbeaten at home in the group, keeping a clean sheet in every game.
Italy had also never won in Belfast, managing just two draws and a defeat in 1958, which ruled it out of the World Cup that year.
The Azzurri were also without injured key forward Ciro Immobile as well as other regular starters.
And they struggled to carve out opportunities against a Northern Ireland side that proved deft at closing down spaces.
Things appeared bright when Italy created an early opportunity with an inspired pass from Lorenzo Insigne to Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who tried to chip Bailey Peacock-Farrell but his effort was tipped away by the goalkeeper.
But that was to be Italy’s best chance of the first half as, though it dominated possession, it struggled to find the final ball. Insigne went close but his effort was too weak and easily saved.
It almost got worse for Italy at the start of the second half when Northern Ireland almost scored. A cross was floated in from the right to the back post where Jamal Lewis knocked it back for George Saville but Gianluigi Donnarumma pulled off a good save to keep out his snapshot from close range.
Italy finally created a good chance in the 63rd minute but it was squandered when Federico Chiesa curled an effort past the right post.
The Azzurri grew more desperate and nervous and were almost caught out at the back in the final moments. Donnarumma rushed out of the penalty area and was beaten by Conor Washington, who dribbled towards the empty goal but his effort was cleared off the line by Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci.
Switzerland booked its World Cup spot in style.
After hitting the woodwork on the stroke of halftime, Noah Okafor headed in his first international goal three minutes after the interval.
Xherdan Shaqiri also hit the post before Ruben Vargas doubled Switzerland’s lead.
Switzerland had two goals ruled out for offside — giving Italy hope in its match — but substitute Cédric Itten and Remo Freuler capped a brilliant night for the home side.