Italy’s bid to secure a place in Qatar continues on Thursday, with Roberto Mancini’s side taking on North Macedonia in the semi-final of their World Cup 2022 Qualifying playoff in Palermo.
The two nations are vying for the opportunity to meet Portugal or Turkey in the Path C final, which is due to take place on Tuesday March 29.
As if failing to make the 2018 World Cup was not painful enough for Italy, a second successive campaign watching on from home with the European trophy already in the cabinet would be nothing short of disastrous for Roberto Mancini and co.
A number of autumnal wobbles contributed to the Azzurri finishing second in Group C – two points behind leaders and fellow unbeaten side Switzerland – as Mancini’s side could only post one win from their final five group matches, drawing four of them.
While the Euro 2020 winners were being held to a goalless stalemate by Northern Ireland on the final matchday, Switzerland put four unanswered goals past Bulgaria to force Italy to settle for a spot in the playoffs, and their path to the finals is far from straightforward.
The Azzurri have never failed to make it to the World Cup twice on the bounce – quickly qualifying in 1962 after missing out on a place in the 1958 edition – and they are one of two playoff sides to navigate their group phase unbeaten, the other being Ukraine.
A tally of just two wins from their last seven in all competitions is certainly an unfamiliar sight from this Italy crop, but they have astonishingly never lost a World Cup Qualifying match on their own turf and enter Thursday’s game as firm favourites to get the job done.
Fresh from qualifying for their first-ever major tournament as an independent nation at Euro 2020, North Macedonia are in with a real shot of participating in their maiden World Cup campaign after finishing as the best of the rest in Group J.
Germany ran away with it as expected – but not before being shocked 2-1 by Blagoja Milevski’s side back in March – and a pair of dominant victories over Armenia and Iceland in their final two group games saw North Macedonia pip Romania to second place by just one point.
Failing to take a single point back home from their Euro 2020 campaign has not led to a downturn in spirit from the North Macedonians, who have lost just one of their last seven in World Cup Qualifying and have kept an eye-catching four clean sheets in that stretch.
Taking 10 points from the last 12 on offer on the road in World Cup Qualifying is also cause for optimism for North Macedonia – who have amassed 13 goals in that run – and not since November 2016 have the world’s 67th-ranked nation failed to find the back of the net away from home in qualification.
North Macedonia’s only previous visit to Italian turf saw them hold the Azzurri to a 1-1 draw during qualification for the 2018 World Cup, but they previously lost 3-2 to the reigning continental champions on their own turf as they endeavour to inflict more World Cup misery on Mancini’s men.
Italy World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Italy form (all competitions):
North Macedonia World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
We say: Italy 3-1 North Macedonia
While the Italian old guard of Bonucci and Chiellini both have their injury problems to overcome, the absence of two key names in Elmas and Kostadinov for North Macedonia will play right into the Azzurri’s hands.
Milevski’s side command respect for making it this far with plenty of goals en route, but Italy are yet to suffer a single World Cup Qualifying defeat at home and that is unlikely to change here, with the European champions eyeing a straightforward route into the playoff final.