Italy faces another detour to reach the World Cup final.
As they did four years ago, the playoffs attract the Azzurri after they stumbled 0-0 in Northern Ireland on Monday and catapulted the recently crowned European champions into second place behind Switzerland in their qualifying group.
Switzerland overtook Italy with a 4-0 win over Bulgaria.
Italy’s football-loving fans could fear the worst. After all, their country also failed to automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup and lost to Sweden in a playoff first leg, one of the darkest moments in Italian football history.
This time around, the Italians will have to pass two one-legged matchups to advance in a newly developed playoff system. The draw will take place on November 26th and Italy will be at home for their first game as they are a seeded team.
England, like Switzerland, goes directly to Qatar.
On the penultimate night of the group game in Europe, England celebrated their biggest competitive win – 10-0 against the part-time players from San Marino – and were leaders in qualifying with more goals (39) than any other team.
Harry Kane in particular enjoyed himself with four goals – all in the first half – and rose to 48 for England, five less than Wayne Rooney’s national record.
Scotland, like Italy, are placed in the playoffs after beating Group F winners Denmark 2-0, whose perfect record came to an end in qualifying.
Poland finished second in England’s group and finished with a 2-1 home loss to Hungary and will likely be away in their first game in the playoffs.
Italy and Switzerland went into their final qualifying round in Group C with 15 points each, but the Azzurri had a superior goal difference, the first tiebreaker if they ended tied.
That didn’t come into play, because while Switzerland put down an easy win over Bulgaria, which had already been eliminated, thanks to goals from Noah Okafor, Ruben Vargas, Cedric Itten and Remo Freuler, Italy became the newest big team to compete in Windsor in an intense atmosphere Park had to fight.
Without the injured striker Ciro Immobile and other regular players, the Italians fought for opportunities despite dominating possession.
When Switzerland scored goals in Lucerne, the task became even more difficult for Italy and Roberto Mancini’s side nearly lost when Conor Washington’s late goal was cleared off the line.
Mancini has sparked a resurgence for the Azzurri that culminated in winning Euro 2020 in July, but they could miss the first football tournament for the second year in a row.
“We have to rediscover what has made us different so far,” said Mancini, “and remain completely calm until March.”
The English have not scored double-digit goals in a game since 1964 and a 10-0 win over the US. They had never done that in a competitive game before Monday.
Harry Maguire, Emile Smith Rowe, Tyrone Mings, Tammy Abraham and Bukayo Saka joined Kane to score for England while San Marino, the lowest-ranked team in the world, scored an own goal – a line-up filled with non-professionals who use the annual vacation from their main job to play in the qualification.
England’s record victory, 13-0 against Ireland in 1882, was approaching when Saka scored 10-0 in the 79th game, to which the troubled hosts had fallen to 10 men. But there were no more gates.
England finished with 26 points, six ahead of Poland.
Along with Portugal, Italy and Russia, Scotland is one of four teams that are safely seeded – and therefore play at home – in the playoff semi-finals.
Sweden looks good for a home game as well, while Wales will also take one with a win against already qualified Belgium on Tuesday after the group stage of the European Championship qualifiers.
Denmark lost points for the first time in qualifying after goals from John Souttar and Che Adams secured their sixth straight competitive win for Scotland for the first time since 1930.
In Group F, too, Israel finished third after beating the Faroe Islands 3-2 and Austria finished 4-1 against Moldova.
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