On Friday, the eyes of the Italian and Portuguese fans will be focused on Zurich, where the draw for the European playoff qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, as the teams of their countries are threatened to be in one group or meet Poland, top scorer Robert Lewandowski, or Sweden and its giant star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The International Federation of the game (FIFA) draws the European qualifiers, scheduled for March 24 and 29, as well as the play-offs scheduled for June 13 and 14, on neutral ground, between the fifth Asian qualifiers, the fifth South American qualifiers, the fourth CONCACAF qualifiers (Central America, North America and the Caribbean) and the Oceania champion. .
The Italian teams, the European champions in the last edition this summer, and the Portuguese, the champions of the previous edition in 2016, put themselves in a difficult situation after they failed to book the direct qualification ticket in the group stage by placing them in second place behind Switzerland and Serbia. 10 teams reserved their direct cards for the old continent, and three cards remain to be decided through the supplement, with the participation of 12 teams.
In contrast to the old system, the play-off will not be held in direct confrontations from two home and away matches, but the 12 teams will be divided into three tracks determined by a lottery, and four teams will compete in each of them with a semi-final system (March 24-25) and a final match (March 28-29). The winner will go to the World Cup (three tracks = three qualified teams for each track).
Tension has increased somewhat, even among the European champions, as the Italians, since winning the continental title last July, have been afraid of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row after the disaster of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Something has stopped.”
The Italians remember a shock four years ago, when Sweden blocked their way to the World Cup in Russia during the play-off that was held at the time, with the home and away system.
Like Italy, Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo trembles before the draw, amid the harsh criticism leveled by the local media against coach Fernando Santos.
The Portuguese press considered the coach primarily responsible for the defeat against his guest Serbia (1-2) in the last round, when he only needed a draw to reach the finals. But Seleção, the old continent, has the experience of the World Cup, after qualifying through it in 2010 and 2014.
The two continental giants have a guarantee of playing the semi-final match at home, thanks to their presence in the first level along with Scotland, Wales, Russia and Sweden.
But Italy and Portugal face the risk of meeting in the final or facing another wounded team such as Sweden, which reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
And if Sweden disappointed in the last European Cup by getting out of the final price at the hands of Ukraine, it shone remarkably in the World Cup qualifiers, as it was leading against Spain two rounds before the end of the qualifiers, knowing that it beat “La Roja” 2-1 before losing to him. In the last round 0-1.
The Scandinavian national team regained the services of its giant Ibrahimovic (40 years old) after recovering from the injury he suffered in the summer and prevented him from participating in the continental cup.
Ibra is one of the biggest scarecrows in this lottery, as is Polish striker Lewandowski, who scored eight goals in the qualifiers.
The German star of Bayern Munich is more frightening, especially with his country’s presence in the second level of the draw, and therefore he will be a possible opponent since the semi-finals for Italy or Portugal.
“We have enough good players to beat a big team in one match,” said Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa.
Perhaps Sousa would prefer to face a more modest team in the top-ranked like Wales, which has not played in the World Cup finals since 1958, or Russia or Scotland, which did not shine in the last European Cup.
In turn, the other teams in the second level, and it comes to Ukraine, Austria, Turkey, the Czech Republic and North Macedonia, are waiting for their fate and potential rivals, with the ambition of creating a surprise in these “Quartet Finals”.
“For the World Cup, we have to face the (big) teams. It is a challenge we will fight for,” said Czech defender Jakub Brabic, recalling that his country beat Scotland 2-0 in Glasgow in the European Cup.
North Macedonia, which is in the second level of the qualifiers, is one of the teams to be wary of, after it did well in the qualifiers in its quest to reach the world finals for the first time in its history, after it did it last summer with its first participation in the Continental Cup. In general, all dreams remain permitted in the new European Annex.