Italy dropped to World Cup qualifying playoffs: How did last summer’s Euro champs fail to win their group?


Italy’s 0-0 draw away at Northern Ireland coupled with Switzerland’s 4-0 thrashing of Bulgaria on Monday means that European Group C finishes with the Swiss top by two points granting them a spot at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while the Italians are left dropping into the playoffs.

The Azzurri, less than six months on from their success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship, find themselves having to reach Qatar the hard way. This despite having started their campaign in strong fashion before a post-Euro wobble and a destructive UEFA Nations League campaign halted their progress.

Roberto Mancini’s men will remain one of the favorites to advance along with Portugal, Sweden, and Scotland, but there are plenty of other wildcards who could give Italy a tough time. The new playoff system which crates three groups of four teams, with each group playing a one leg semifinal, followed by a finals means Italy have plenty of chances to slip up, even if they may still be favored to make it to Qatar.  Only the Portugal, Scotland and Russia are certain to be seeded alongside them, meaning there are plenty of dangerous sides left that Italy might have to get by.

“I am disappointed,” said the 56-year-old at Windsor Park. “We made life complicated for ourselves and qualification should have been sealed at least two games ago. We had the chances and did not take them.

“Now, we have got to keep our feet on the ground as there is still the possibility of qualifying for the World Cup.”

How Group C was turned on its head

Three matches in, Italy boasted a 100% record with six goals scored, none conceded, and appeared to be coasting towards the top spot. Then they were cursed by Euro success.

After their triumph in London, points were immediately dropped against Bulgaria and Switzerland before further ground was eaten away by Murat Yakin’s Swiss team while the Italians were finishing third in the Nations League.

The Swiss once again held firm against the Azzurri for another draw and coupled with convincing wins over Northern Ireland and Lithuania, the Nati had closed the gap enough to switch places on the final day as they blew away the Bulgarians while Mancini’s side toiled in Belfast.

Major Euro hangover

Looking at the results post-Euro, this Italy side has clearly suffered from a hangover after their success with all eight points dropped since that memorable day at Wembley Stadium with four of those coming against Switzerland with two missed Jorginho penalties to boot.

However, the four lost against Bulgaria and the Northern Irish — particularly the former at home — have proved the costliest with that Bulgarian setback the first match back after their summer triumph and two points the ultimate difference.

“I continue to believe that we are a great team,” added Mancini in Belfast. “This is a difficult moment — we threw away qualification that we had in our hands. We have got to rediscover our calm for March and continue playing.

“I believe we will go to the World Cup. We have two games to play and will be sure to do it right. There is no point looking for reasons now why we are in this situation. All we can do is prepare for March.”

Unbeaten run broken

Of equal importance was the loss to Spain during the Nations League final four which saw Italy’s massive 37-game unbeaten streak ended before a recovery with a win over Belgium to finish third.

That record ending and the gap in Group C having closed to level pegging with the Swiss made these two final qualifiers of massive importance.

Injuries also contributed and the untimely loss of Ciro Immobile who, despite failing to catch fire at Euro 2020 and scoring no more than twice in these qualifiers, remains extremely important to Mancini’s plans, was not ideal.

The Lazio man was ruled out of both games due to a soleus muscle issue while injured Paris Saint-Germain midfield schemer Marco Verratti also missed out. The resulting Italy side simply wasn’t dynamic enough. Despite desperately chasing a win on Monday in Northern Ireland the team managed only 12 shots and 0.92 expected goals.

What next?

Italy will likely still make it to Qatar via the playoffs, but they’re now at serious risk of missing their second straight World Cup, they will now have to go through that agony once more which will undoubtedly bring back the ghosts of 2018 when Sweden advanced 1-0 at their expense.

It was those circumstances which paved the way for Mancini to come in and turn the Azzurri’s fortunes around but there is little debating that this is a stronger Italian side than the one humiliated under Gian Piero Ventura.

The draw will be made later this month and expect Italy, whoever they get, will view their opponents as beatable over two legs.





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