Italy and Portugal could meet for a place at the 2022 World Cup after being
drawn in the same play-off path on Friday.
The Azzurri and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal both finished
second in their qualifying groups, behind Switzerland and Serbia respectively.
Italy will host North Macedonia in the play-off first round
in March, with Turkey visiting Portugal, before the winners face off for a spot
at next year’s finals in Qatar.
The draw means that one of the last two European
Championship winners will not be at the next World Cup. Portugal won the Euro
The winners of Portugal’s match with Turkey will host the final-round
game in Path C.
“It’s a very difficult draw for us,” said Italy
coach Roberto Mancini. “North Macedonia is a very good team, and if we win
we have to play away.”
Italy – who beat England on penalties in the Euro 2020
final earlier this year – are hoping to banish the memories of their play-off
heartache from four years ago when they lost to Sweden and failed to qualify
for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Portugal have featured at every major championship since
missing out on the 1998 World Cup.
They only narrowly missed out on automatic qualification
when Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late goal snatched a 2-1 win for Serbia in the two
teams’ last group match.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos said all the focus now was
“to beat Turkey”.
“It’s the imortant match to go through to the final and
to win it. We now have to prepare well to be at a good level in March.
“Sometimes they (Turkey) play well, other times not.
They’re a team that always present difficulties, but I’m totally convinced that
we’ll be going to the World Cup.”
Elsewhere in the playoffs, British rivals Wales and Scotland
could play each other in the final of Path A.
Scotland will welcome Ukraine to Glasgow in their semi-final
game. Wales take on Austria in Cardiff, with the winners to have home advantage
in the final.
The Welsh are hoping to play in the global showpiece for the
first time in 64 years, while Scotland have not qualified since 1998.
“We’ve given ourselves a great opportunity,” said
Wales manager Robert Page.
“It was in 1958 that we last qualified for the World
Cup finals and through the play-offs again, so the incentive is there for us.
“We worked ever so hard to get that runners-up position
in the group and earn that home draw, and we’ve had the luck of the draw that
if we win that semi-final we will also be home for the final, so there’s
everything to play for.”
Russia face Poland in the Path B semi-finals, with the
winners to host Sweden or the Czech Republic.
The Russians, who reached the 2018 quarter-finals as the
host nation, have only ever lost one World Cup qualifier at home — against
Germany in 2009.