Italy’s chance to banish their demons from failing to qualify for Russia 2018 comes down to the wire on Monday night, as they visit Northern Ireland in a decisive World Cup Qualifying game.
While the European champions could assure progress to next year’s finals with a win, their hosts will be playing only for pride and the opportunity to finish third in Group C.
When spot-kick maestro Jorginho blazed his late penalty attempt well over the bar at Stadio Olimpico on Friday night, Italian fans were entitled to fear the worst, as memories of the nation’s dismal failure to reach the World Cup four years ago still linger among the Azzurri faithful.
The Chelsea midfielder – and current UEFA Player of the Year – may have spurned the opportunity to effectively seal qualification for Qatar 2022 by missing from 12 yards against Switzerland, but Italy managed to see out an entertaining encounter; taking a deserved point from a 1-1 home draw.
Following Silvan Widmer’s bullet-like finish to open the scoring for the Swiss, a header by right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo pulled Roberto Mancini’s side level before the break, but several more chances came and went without tilting the balance either way. Therefore, Italy hold a superior goal difference to their Alpine rivals at the top of the table, as they seek to avoid a playoff and book a direct ticket to the Middle East.
A pre-Mancini squad were beaten over two legs by Sweden last time La Nazionale featured in the playoffs, after they had made little impression at either the 2010 or 2014 finals having qualified.
While the Azzurri now travel to Northern Ireland, second-placed Switzerland will play at home against Bulgaria, so Mancini and company must secure victory in Belfast without being significantly outscored by the Swiss, who they have drawn with twice.
Since winning the Euros in the summer, the Italians’ results have been mixed, as their record unbeaten run was ended in the Nations League semi-finals by Spain – though they then beat Belgium 2-1 to secure third place – and they were also held by Bulgaria in Florence.
Nonetheless, scoring 13 times and conceding just twice in the qualification process to date indicates the challenge their opponents will face at Windsor Park on Monday. Remaining calm and collected, Mancini has assured his public that Italy will overcome their World Cup syndrome and secure a return to the finals after eight years away, but a tense 90 minutes awaits.
Turning a dominant display into three points against lowly Lithuania on Friday will have boosted Northern Ireland’s fragile morale ahead of their second successive home fixture, as they prepare to host the Group C leaders and champions of the continent.
Ian Baraclough’s men moved back up into third in the table with that victory – a first at Windsor Park since 2019 – in a game which they should have won more comfortably than the final 1-0 scoreline suggests.
Only their second win in seven qualifying matches – their only other success also came against Lithuania in September – the Green and White Army’s hopes of making the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 have long since ended.
However, having lost both of their qualifiers in October – suffering a 2-0 defeat in Switzerland before being beaten by Bulgaria – Northern Ireland can at least achieve the consolation of a third-place finish in a group which, as expected, has developed into a two-horse race.
Baraclough has a record of only four wins from 19 games since taking charge, and has so far failed to produce contenders from the limited resources at his disposal, as his side endure familiar difficulties in front of goal – scoring just six times on the road to Qatar.
Breaching their illustrious visitors’ back four on Monday may therefore prove too tough a task for Northern Ireland, who were dispatched 2-0 by Italy in March’s reverse fixture.
Northern Ireland World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Northern Ireland form (all competitions):
Italy World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Italy form (all competitions):
We say: Northern Ireland 0-2 Italy
Playing pressure-free, and with all their main men at their disposal, Northern Ireland can pose some problems for an Italian side which must conquer not only their opponents but also the occasion.
The Azzurri have seemed edgy at times in recent months, but if they can find an early goal, their technical and tactical supremacy should ensure a vital victory for the boys in blue – leaving them to await news of events in Switzerland before celebrating qualification.