The final round of European World Cup 2022 qualifying saw 10 teams qualify for next year’s tournament. More than 25 teams weren’t so happy as they were eliminated, but for 12 teams there is a second opportunity to gain a place at next year’s tournament via the playoffs. The 10 teams who finished second in their groups will be joined by Austria, who qualified via the UEFA Nations League, and Czech Republic who qualified as the 3rd placed team with the highest points tally (because Ukraine finished second in their group but had already qualified via the Nations League).
For many of these nations a play off place was the best they could have hoped for, which could be seen in the way they celebrated the achievement. Sweden, Wales, Poland, Scotland, Russia, Turkey, North Macedonia, Scotland, Czech Republic and Austria are not teams with particularly illustrious histories in the World Cup so qualification would be a huge achievement. Two other nations qualified for the playoffs, but to feelings of disappointment rather than joy. Fans of both Portugal and Italy aren’t happy that their teams couldn’t finish above Serbia and Switzerland respectively.
So, what happened?
After Italy’s Euro 2020 win at Wembley in the summer of 2021, they were expected to qualify for next year’s World Cup with ease, particularly as they were competing with the likes of Switzerland, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria. Tom Love, who provides football tips for oddschecker, predicted that the Italians would comfortably qualify as group winners, however it hasn’t worked out that way. In the final two qualifiers Roberto Mancini’s team stuttered to consecutive draws, which meant that despite ending the campaign unbeaten, they finished two points behind the Swiss.
The manner of the two draws was particularly upsetting for the Italians as Chelsea midfielder Jorginho missed a 90th minute penalty against Switzerland which would have taken Mancini’s men to the top of the group going into the final match. Despite this, they went into the final game against Northern Ireland needing to win and hoping that Bulgaria did them a favour against Switzerland. Neither of those things happened, so the Italians will have to dust themselves off and prepare for March’s playoffs.
Portugal blows it at the last
In group A, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal found themselves in a similar situation in that they also had to play their direct qualification rivals, although the stakes were arguably higher as they faced Serbia in the final game. They made things harder for themselves in the penultimate match, failing to beat a Republic of Ireland team who had nothing but pride to play for. The two teams went into the final match level on 17 points after Serbia beat Azerbaijan in their penultimate game, meaning the Portuguese only needed a draw to go through.
It seems this was on the minds of Fernando Santos and his players as they let Serbia control possession and territory while they protected their 2nd minute goal. Rather than continue attacking to try and secure the result with further goals, Portugal sat deep and gave up possession cheaply, which gave Serbia the platform and the confidence to turn the result around. They did so in the 90th minute through Fulham’s Aleksander Mitrovic, who then celebrated by mocking Cristiano Ronaldo’s famous “Siiiu” celebration. All is not lost for the Euro 2016 winners, but with the talent at their disposal, they’ll be better off taking the initiative in their playoff semi-final, regardless of the opponent.
When is the draw?
The draw for the playoffs will be held on 26th November, with the semi-finals to be played on 24th March and the finals on 29th. Of the 12 teams, only 3 will qualify, they’ll be drawn into 6 semi-final ties, before the winners face off in the finals. Portugal, Italy, Scotland, Russia, Sweden and Wales will go into the draw as top seeds meaning they’ll avoid each other in the semi-finals, although they can all face one another in the finals.
Italy boss Roberto Mancini has already stated his desire to avoid Portugal at all costs and Portugal Manager Fernando Santos will probably be thinking likewise. Neutral fans will surely agree as next years tournament is sure to be the last World Cup for legends like Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo Bonucci and Pepe.