A surprise midweek setback for European champions Italy will see them intent on claiming a crucial win in Switzerland on Sunday, as they seek to take a step closer to reaching Qatar 2022.
While the Azzurri were held by Bulgaria in Florence, their Alpine rivals – who they met in the Euros just a few weeks ago – were in friendly action due to an uneven number of teams in World Cup Qualifying Group C.
An encounter with lowly Bulgaria at the atmospheric Stadio Artemio Franchi seemed like the perfect way for Italy to return to competitive action for the first time since their summer success, but events failed to pan out as expected on Thursday, as they rejoined the road to next year’s World Cup finals.
A sensational opening goal from Federico Chiesa – who characteristically slalomed through the visitors’ defence before exchanging a one-two and firing home with typical aplomb – was cancelled out later in the first half, with a neat left-footed finish from Atanas Iliev earning Bulgaria an unlikely 1-1 draw in the Tuscan capital.
Having now blotted their previously perfect start to the qualification process, Roberto Mancini’s men face perhaps their most testing task of the group, as they head to Basel for a crunch clash with Switzerland.
Ahead of the game, they can boast a remarkable 35-game unbeaten streak – which equals the European record run set by Spain – including a 3-0 victory over the Swiss at Stadio Olimpico in early June, thanks to Manuel Locatelli’s double strike.
Nonetheless, this weekend’s opponents remain their only credible rivals for the sole automatic qualification spot, as they trail the Azzurri by four points but have two games in hand.
Having previously overcome Bulgaria, Northern Ireland and Lithuania by 2-0 scorelines, Italy have put themselves in pole position in Group C, and their second continental title this summer sees them as one of the favourites to claim the biggest prize in Qatar next year.
However, the scars are still raw from La Nazionale’s abject failure to reach Russia three years ago, after which Mancini radically overhauled all aspects of the Italian approach to spectacular effect. So now they must quickly forget their midweek frustration and put in a decisive performance on Sunday.
In their first outing since being knocked out of Euro 2020 by Spain – by the tortuous method of a penalty shootout – Switzerland showed little signs of a hangover, as they ended Greece’s 14-game unbeaten streak with a 2-1 friendly win in midweek.
Two stars of a campaign which saw the Nati bounce back from their heavy defeat to the Italians with a stunning defeat of world champions France in the last 16 – Ruben Vargas and Steven Zuber – were on the scoresheet on Wednesday, as Murat Yakin got his reign as manager under way.
Having taken over from the inimitable Vladimir Petkovic, who enjoyed success and acclaim throughout much of his spell in charge of the Swiss side, former Basel boss Yakin now leads his nation into crucial qualifiers with the Azzurri and then Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. They so far have maximum points from fixtures with Bulgaria and Lithuania, but have some catching up to do.
Reaching the quarter-final stage of the Euros for the first time ever will surely have galvanised a talented group of players – drawn mostly from the Bundesliga, but also with a smattering of members across other top leagues in Europe – ahead of their return to competitive action.
In fact, penalties aside, Switzerland have lost just once in their last 14 matches, which indicates their consistency and confirms a reputation as one of the continent’s current top teams. However, the identity of their conquerors on that single occasion will surely give Yakin and company cause for consternation – particularly with their captain and star player both sidelined on Sunday.
Switzerland World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Switzerland form (all competitions):
Italy World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Italy form (all competitions):
We say: Switzerland 1-1 Italy
Despite lacking integral players in the middle of the pitch, Switzerland can follow Bulgaria’s path by frustrating the European champions on Sunday night – through grit and some resolute performances from an experienced back line.
Italy are in a strong position in Group C already, so a second successive draw will be far from disastrous – particularly as it would keep their key rivals adrift in the table; securing the outright European record for games undefeated in the process.