Italy march to playoffs

 

European champions Italy missed out on automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after they were held to a 0-0 draw by Northern Ireland on Monday.

The Azzurri went into their final Group C qualification clash knowing they needed to win by enough goals to stay ahead of Switzerland to claim a place at next year’s finals in Qatar.

With the Swiss earning a 4-0 victory over Bulgaria in Lucerne, only a win by a three-goal margin would have been enough for Italy but they could not find a way past a determined Irish side and had to settle for a March playoff spot.

The playoffs do not hold fond memories for Italy, who failed to make the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden over two legs. Only three playoff teams out of 12 qualify for the finals.

“We can’t do anything about it now, we have this game in March and will try to give our best,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini told RAI Sport.

“At the moment we are struggling to score goals, despite dominating possession. Northern Ireland put everyone in defence and we struggle to break sides like that down.”

It was clear from the start that it was not going to be an easy task for an injury-hit Italy, who began the match without a recognised striker in the absence of Ciro Immobile.

Northern Ireland had not conceded a goal at home in their previous four qualifiers and set up to frustrate the Italians, despite being unable to qualify for the finals themselves.

The visitors created little in the opening period, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s effort from a tight angle, which was well saved by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, as close as they came.

After the break, the hosts’ George Saville missed a great opportunity to make Italy’s task all the more difficult, before Federico Chiesa drilled just wide down the other end.

Mancini threw on several other forward options as he looked to boost his side’s attacking threat, but the home team, in truth, never looked troubled.

Italy go into the March playoffs despite finishing their World Cup qualification campaign unbeaten – four draws since their Euro 2020 success being their downfall.

Switzerland thrash Bulgaria

Switzerland striker Noah Okafor scored his first international goal as they brushed Bulgaria aside 4-0 to seal a place at next year’s World Cup in Qatar as Group C winners.

Ruben Vargas, Cedric Itten and Remo Freuler were also on target for the hosts as they moved to 18 points from eight matches, two points ahead of European champions Italy.

The Italians were held to a 0-0 draw away to Northern Ireland and must now play in March’s playoffs.

Switzerland qualified for a fifth successive World Cup in some style, having also hit the post twice and had two goals ruled out for offside as they cut through the Bulgarian defence with ease.

It was a special night for Swiss captain Xherdan Shaqiri, who marked his 100th appearance with excellent performance, getting the ball rolling by setting up the home side’s opener.

Okafor went close when he struck the post and the ball rolled agonizingly along the goalline before being cleared.

But the 21-year-old was able to score his first international goal when Shaqiri’s cross provided a free header from six yards.

Shaqiri came close to doubling the advantage when he struck the post from close-range.

Mario Gavranovic laid on a pass for Vargas to run onto and the latter blasted the ball into the net to make it 2-0 in the 57th minute.

The home side had two goals ruled out for offside in quick succession before Itten scored a third, and the rout was complete when Freuler rifled the ball past Bulgaria goalkeeper Ivan Karadzhov from the edge of the box.

England run riot

England clinched their spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a 10-0 away win over San Marino to top Group I on Monday night as Harry Kane scored a second hat trick in as many matches and ended the match with four goals.

The game was largely a formality for Gareth Southgate’s side table-topping Three Lions, as first-half goals from Harry Maguire, Kane’s four tallies and a San Marino own goal had England up 6-0 at the break.

Maguire struck early in the first half with a towering header before Filippo Fabbri redirected a Bukayo Saka shot into his own net and Kane converted from the spot following a VAR-assisted call for handball against the hosts.

Emile Smith Rowe set up Kane for his second of the opening half and he added another from the penalty spot, then his fourth of the opening 45 minutes with a clinical finish from close range.

Smith Rowe opened his senior England account with a crisp strike to start the second half and Kane was withdrawn around the hour mark.

Kane, who took his calendar-year haul for England to a new record 16, became the first England player to score back-to-back hat tricks since Tommy Taylor in 1957 and the first to score four in a match since Ian Wright against San Marino in 1993.

It was also the first time England had scored 10 in a match since beating the United States 10-0 in 1964.

In winning the group by six points from Poland, Southgate’s side racked up 38 goals, their highest tally in any European or World Cup qualifying campaign.

All that must be countered by the fact that as well as playing San Marino, who have won once in 186 internationals, England also faced Andorra who are not much better.

Things will toughen up from now on but they will arrive in Qatar as one of the favourites.

“Fantastic. It came to the last game and we were expected to win tonight but we’ve done a good job. Fantastic to go through,” the 28-year-old Kane, who is now only five goals behind England’s record scorer Wayne Rooney, said.

Substitutes Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings scored goals as the second half wore on and Saka added another as England continued to make short work of Group I minnows San Marino.

The second half was purely academic, although there was a debut for Conor Gallagher and disappointment for Jude Bellingham who thought he had scored his first England goal only for it to be ruled out.

“We cannot do anything about the level of opposition but the mentality and the way they [England’s players] applied themselves was terrific,” Southgate said.

The result clinched England’s spot atop their qualifying group ahead of Poland, who were forced into the playoff round after a loss to Hungary.

Hungary stun Poland

Poland suffered a surprising 2-1 home defeat by Hungary on Monday, as captain Robert Lewandowski was rested, and will feature in the World Cup playoffs as Group I runners-up.

England’s 10-0 demolition of San Marino meant Poland were consigned to second place regardless of the Hungary result.

Paulo Sousa’s Poland side had already secured a spot in the qualifying playoffs for next year’s World Cup after a 4-1 win against Andorra on Friday.

Hungary’s Andras Schafer scored the night’s first goal in the 37th minute with a header from a set play.

The intensity switched after the break, with Poland taking more control of the midfield and stepping up the pressure. Forward Karol Swiderski levelled in the 61st minute with a well-placed header from a corner.

In the 80th, Hungary’s Daniel Gazdag managed to find an opening in the Polish defence and scored with a well-placed shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to put the visitors ahead.

Poland tried for another equaliser but Hungary managed to hold out for the victory in a game that saw eight yellow cards.

England easily claimed their ticket to the World Cup with their thrashing of San Marino to win the group with 26 points from 10 games, six points clear of Poland.

Scotland will feature in the playoffs

Steve Clarke may have booked a World Cup playoff spot already but the bid for Qatar 2022 rolled on with a heroic 2-0 win over Denmark.

The route through to another major final has been filled with hurdles for Scotland but they have cleared one of the biggest by beating the Group F leaders to secure a seeded playoff place.

John Souttar scored an emotional goal to put Steve Clarke’s side ahead after a horrific spell with injuries. Che Adams then settled the match with a great finish in the game’s dying embers.

Defeat for our boys meant they would face a trip to the likes of Portugal or Russia. But now a home tie awaits the Tartan Army and it looks set to be a massive occasion.

Despite going into the game off the back of five consecutive wins, it was no easy task as the Euro 2020 semi-finalists arrived in Glasgow with a perfect record.

The relentless Danes had won every game so far and only conceded a single goal as they booked their tickets to the finals in style.

Despite the prospect of a tough night, the Tartan Army sold-out Hampden to give the nation’s heroes a proper send-off ahead of the playoff.

Adams led the line brilliant but every player in navy blue, and head coach Clarke, deserve enormous credit as international football for 2021 ends on a high.

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Courtesy: Reuters, Daily Records and ESPN

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