When Portugal and Italy were drawn in the same section pf the European play-offs, it confirmed the fears of fans of both countries, and also some neutrals.
At least one of them will not appear in the World Cup finals this year.
The European play-offs, which feature the ten teams that finished second in their qualifying groups, plus Austria and the Czech Republic, who won their Nations League groups last year, will compete in six ties on a one leg basis, although that schedule has already been thrown into disarray by the decision to ban Russia from international football following that country’s armed invasion of Ukraine.
Italy play North Macedonia on Thursday 24th March, whilst Portugal host Turkey on the same evening. With both countries in Pot 1, the winners of those two ties will then meet to decide which of them will play in the finals in November, with the winner of the Portugal/Turkey tie having home advantage. That game will be played on March 29th.
Assuming then that both get through their first matches – and nothing should be taken for granted in international football – it means that either the 2016 European Champions, or the side that succeeded them last year by winning the Euros, will miss out on the World Cup.
And it means that some of the biggest names in the game, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Jorginho and Gianluca Donnarumma face the possibility of joining the rest of the world in watching the World Cup on television.
For Italy, who also missed out in the 2018 World Cup after being beaten by Sweden in their qualifying group, it would be particularly disastrous.
Arguably, they only have themselves to blame. They held automatic qualification on their grasp in Group C, but two draws in their last two games, allowed Switzerland to overtake them and pip them for top spot.
Portugal also threw their chance away. Going into their final group match against Serbia in Lisbon, they needed just to draw to ensure their own automatic passage, But, having taken an early lead, they allowed the Serbs to equalise and right on the stroke of full-time substitute Aleksandar Mitrović popped up with the winner for the visitors.
It means a potential winner take all contest in Lisbon on March 29th.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, this could be a defining match. He is already the top international goal scorer of all time with 115 goals in 184 matches, but he is now 37, and whether he would have the appetite to continue in international football if his country fail to make the World Cup must be open to doubt.
And that would be a double blow for him after Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League means that, for the first time in 16 years, he has failed to win a domestic trophy.
Will this prove to be his swansong or, like so often before, will be manage to pull one last trick out of his considerable repertoire?
With one of these European giants destined not to make it to Qatar, this is not a match for the faint-hearted. Home advantage may just give Portugal the edge.
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Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.