Heading into their final World Cup 2022 qualifier, Italy just needed a win against lowly Northern Ireland to secure their place at next winter’s finals in Qatar. But on a raucous night at Windsor Park in Belfast, the Green and White Army held the European Champions to a 0-0 draw, and with Switzerland hammering Bulgaria in Lucerne, Italy slipped into second place and will now have to contest a play-off.
It was a frustrating night for the Italians, who just couldn’t get going in Belfast despite being firm favourites in the football odds from Betfair. Indeed, Northern Ireland had chances to win it towards the end, with Conor Washington squandering an open goal. It was an evening to forget for the Azzurri, and a performance that was a far cry from the sensational displays which saw them win Euro 2020 in the summer.
Italy boss Roberto Mancini cut an exasperated figure on the touchline, but he was adamant after the match that this setback would not prevent Italy from reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“We will make it to the World Cup in March and then maybe we will even win it. I am totally confident,” Mancini said. “Despite controlling matches, we're struggling to score goals at the moment. We needed to score early on tonight. It's a shame because we should have finished things off sooner in this group.”
“We need to rediscover what has set us apart until now and remain completely calm until March. We should have won against Bulgaria and had two penalties against Switzerland. These are games that could have finished in our favour. I'm completely confident about the play-offs.”
To assert so boldly that Italy will not only reach the finals, but possibly win the whole thing, is quite something, and doesn’t really reflect that perilous position that Mancini and co. find themselves in. The play-offs can be extremely difficult for teams of their stature, as the pressure and expectation is ramped up massively.
For 2022, the World Cup qualification play-offs will be a little bit different. It is no longer a case of playing one two-legged tie with the winner progressing. Instead, four teams will contest two single-leg semi-finals before the winners clash for a place in the finals. The nature of standalone fixtures means that anyone will fancy beating Italy on their day, and all it could take is one poor performance for them to crash out.
Italian fans have painful memories of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, when they agonisingly lost 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden in the play-offs. It was the first time Italy had missed out on a World Cup finals since 1958, when, you guessed it, Northern Ireland were the team who snatched their place at the main event.
It would be a great shame if Italy were to miss out on a second successive World Cup finals, given how entertaining they were to watch at Euro 2020. Mancini may be confident that they will progress, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t take anything for granted when it comes to the play-offs.