World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (165)

Roberto Mancini has expressed regret about Italy's failure to secure automatic World Cup qualification and warned the Azzurri must forget about their Euro 2020 success ahead of the playoffs.

Italy, who missed out on the 2018 World Cup, have undergone a transformative period under former Inter and Manchester City manager Mancini. That culminated in them triumphing at Euro 2020 – their first European Championship title since 1968.

The Azzurri embarked on a world-record 37-game unbeaten run, which ended at the hands of Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in October, but their World Cup prospects hang in the balance.

Italy finished runners-up to Switzerland in Group C, as did Portugal to Serbia in Group A. The pair were then drawn on the same play-off path, meaning there is no way that Mancini's side and Cristiano Ronaldo and co can both qualify for Qatar 2022.

Italy have to navigate past North Macedonia in the play-off semi-final in late March and Mancini wishes his side had managed to confirm qualification earlier.

He told Sky Sports Italia: "Yes, but this is football, it is sport. Sometimes you deserve to win and you don't win, we deserved to finish the group much earlier.

"We let ourselves go a bit and now we have to roll up our sleeves and do a great job in the two games. But I remain optimistic, as I knew that our group with Switzerland would be difficult. I thought we would qualify, but I knew it would be difficult."

Reflecting on Euro 2020 success, Mancini said: "We have done an extraordinary thing, we have made millions of people happy. It is the most beautiful thing, of which we are all proud.

"But the European Championship is behind us, now we have to think about something else."

The play-offs are one-leg ties, with Italy and Portugal hosting North Macedonia and Turkey in their respective semi-finals.

The winners of those two semi-finals will meet in a final, in which Portugal or Turkey will be at home, to secure a place at Qatar 2022.

If Italy can negotiate such a tricky route, Mancini believes they have players who will benefit from experiencing a World Cup.

He said: "There are many players who can improve a lot and, for me, it will be important to go to the World Cup because I think there are 10-12 players who can improve a lot going to the World Cup, if we go there."

Mario Balotelli believes he can earn a dramatic Italy recall in time for the World Cup play-offs, according to his club boss Vincenzo Montella.

The former Inter, Manchester City and Liverpool striker scored 14 goals in 36 games for the Azzurri before his international career ground to a halt in 2018.

Despite his long-time ally Roberto Mancini being head coach of the Azzurri, there has been little hint of a return to Italy duty since Mancini gave him three caps early in his reign.

Those three appearances were Balotelli's first for Italy since the 2014 World Cup, and he has not been called into a squad since September 2018, with his club career taking him in the meantime from Nice onwards to Marseille, Brescia, Monza and currently Adana Demirspor in Turkey.

Balotelli has scored five Super Lig goals this season for a team who sit eighth in the table after 16 games.

Former Roma frontman Montella, who also played for Italy, has floated the idea that there could yet be another chapter in the story of Balotelli's Azzurri career.

"Balotelli has extraordinary technical qualities. He is a good guy who sometimes goes off a little. But I found him very motivated, and I believe that in his career he has never been as concentrated as this year with us," Montella told Italia 1's Tiki Taka programme.

"He is growing a lot, it is a pleasure to coach him. He has the obsession to return to the national team. He is motivated, he believes in it, he knows he has to work hard, but he knows he has three months to convince Mancini that he knows everything about him, his strengths and weaknesses."

 

Italy won Euro 2020 just five months ago but face a battle to get to the World Cup, knowing they must beat North Macedonia on March 24 to set up a decider against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey.

This is because, despite remaining unbeaten in qualifying so far, they finished only second to Switzerland in the group stage. Italy missed out on the 2018 World Cup, so to do so for a second successive time would be a major blow.

Montella said: "Mancini has done an extraordinary job since the beginning of his Azzurri adventure and winning the European Championship was a great thing. Getting to the World Cup will be difficult but Italy, in difficulties, always manage to bring out the best of its potential. I wish and hope that we will be able to qualify."

Ellen White became England women's all-time top scorer as she netted a hat-trick in a record-breaking 20-0 demolition of Latvia in World Cup qualifying.

The Manchester City forward, making her 101st appearance for her country, equalled Kelly Smith's record of 106 goals for England after just six minutes at the Keepmoat Stadium.

White, who achieved the mark in 16 games fewer than Smith, surpassed the milestone just three minutes later before adding her third – one of four hat-tricks scored by England on Tuesday – after the interval.

The 32-year-old now has 48 goals for the Lionesses, averaging almost a goal per game, following England's record competitive win. Their 13-0 thrashing of Hungary in October 2005 was the previous biggest margin of victory.

In total England, who had hit double figures 10 times previously since the team started in 1972, had 10 different goalscorers and over their two group matches against Latvia have attempted 121 shots while facing none in return, according to Opta data.

England remain top of their World Cup qualifying group, with a perfect six wins from six games, in which they have managed 53 goals and conceded none in reply.

White is also the second-highest scorer in Women's Super League history, netting 58 times in 126 appearances for Arsenal, Notts County, Birmingham and Manchester City.

Roberto Mancini admitted Italy would rather not have to do battle with Portugal for a place in the 2022 World Cup if they get past North Macedonia.

The European champions were on Friday drawn to face North Macedonia in a semi-final next March after missing out on automatic qualification for the tournament in Qatar.

Italy will come up against either Portugal or Turkey in a decisive showdown if they avoid a semi-final upset.

Euro 2016 champions Portugal were consigned to a play-off spot in dramatic fashion as Aleksandar Mitrovic's last-gasp strike saw Serbia through as Group A winners.

Italy boss Mancini is confident his side will qualify, but gave an honest reaction to the prospect of trying to deny Cristiano Ronaldo what could be his last trip to a World Cup.

He said: "We are always confident and positive. Macedonia had a good qualifying group, we will have to play a great match. Then we will see what happens in the final.

Asked about the prospect of coming up against Portugal, he said: "We would have liked to avoid them, in the same way Portugal would have gladly avoided Italy."

The draw also threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine.

Russia will host Poland, with the winners playing either Sweden or the Czech Republic. 

Italy or Portugal will miss out on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the two most recent European champions were drawn in the same play-off path.

Roberto Mancini led Italy to a Euro 2020 triumph earlier this year, yet the Azzurri failed to qualify automatically for next year's World Cup, with Switzerland progressing instead.

Portugal, Euro 2016 winners, also fell short, finishing three points behind Serbia in Group A.

And now one of the heavyweights will fail to appear in Qatar, with both teams drawn together in Path C of the play-offs, which will take place in March.

Italy were drawn in a semi-final against minnows North Macedonia, who are aiming to make their first appearance at a World Cup, while Portugal will face Turkey.

Should they progress, Portugal will have home advantage in the Path C final to determine which team progresses to Qatar. While Cristiano Ronaldo could well be fighting to play in his final World Cup, the Azzurri will be aiming to avoid missing out on the tournament for a second successive time.

Path A threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine, who went unbeaten in a qualifying group that also included reigning world champions France, respectively.

In Path B, Russia will host Poland and Sweden will play the Czech Republic. 

The winner of Russia v Poland will host the Path B final.

Play-offs draw in full

Path A

SF1 – Scotland v Ukraine

SF2 – Wales v Austria

F1 – Winner SF2 v Winner SF1

Path B

SF3 – Russia v Poland

SF4 – Sweden v Czech Republic

F2 – Winner SF3 v Winner SF4

Path C

SF5 – Italy v North Macedonia

SF6 – Portugal v Turkey

F3 – Winner SF6 v Winner SF5

Switzerland kept their word and thanked Northern Ireland for helping them to reach the World Cup – by sending the team chocolate.

In one of the sweeter football stories of the week, Switzerland posted a video to social media on Wednesday showing head coach Murat Yakin boxing up some confectionery treats to send to Belfast.

It was their way of showing their gratitude for Northern Ireland's goalless draw with Italy in the final round of European World Cup qualifying group games, a result that, combined with Switzerland's 4-0 win over Bulgaria, saw Yakin's men seal their place at Qatar 2022.

Ian Baraclough's side are to receive 9.3 kilograms of Swiss chocolate in recognition of preventing the European champions from scoring for 93 minutes.

Switzerland had previously promised a gift after initially paying tribute in their post-match celebrations at the team hotel in Lucerne, where they sung Sweet Caroline, the 1969 Neil Diamond hit that has become a staple song at Northern Ireland matches.

The Euro 2020 quarter-finalists drew 1-1 with Italy in their penultimate qualifier, in which Jorginho missed a 90th-minute penalty for the Azzurri. That result ensured they were able to finish two points clear at the top of Group C after the final round of games.

Italy, meanwhile, must now contend the play-offs alongside teams including Portugal, Sweden, Wales and Russia. The draw for the semi-finals takes place on Friday.

Karim Benzema will not be excluded from France selection despite being handed a one-year suspended prison sentence on Wednesday, French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet has said.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was also fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former Les Blues team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema, who has always denied the accusations and was not present in court in Versailles when the verdict was given, intends to appeal the decision.

The case dates back to June 2015 when Benzema is said to have put pressure on Valbuena to pay off blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye.

Benzema and Valbuena, who now plays for Greek side Olympiacos, were both dropped from the France national team in the wake of the scandal.

However, Benzema was recalled earlier this year ahead of the rescheduled Euro 2020 – ending a six-year absence – and has been a regular for Didier Deschamps' side ever since.

The 33-year-old will continue to remain available for Les Blues when the national team reconvenes for their next batch of fixtures in March 2022.

"I don't know what Karim and his lawyers will decide, but as far as the Federation is concerned, there is no change," La Graet said, as quoted by L'Equipe. 

"He remains selectable, while regretting this unfortunate record. He did not play for several years with the France team. This sanction does not change anything for me. 

"He is selectable. Even if he does not appeal, for me, that does not change anything. He has the right to work." 

Benzema is part of Real Madrid's squad for Wednesday's Champions League tie with Sheriff.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledged his shoulder charge on Cesar Azpilicueta was stupid but insisted he would "100 per cent" do it again. 

In the closing stages of Sweden's 1-0 defeat to Spain this month, which meant they would have to go through the play-offs to reach the 2022 World Cup, Ibrahimovic steamed into Azpilicueta and sent him flying to the ground. 

The veteran striker was shown a yellow card that has ruled him out of Sweden's play-off semi-final in March. 

But Ibrahimovic felt it was important for him to stand up for a team-mate and teach the Chelsea defender a lesson. It is not a decision he would change if he had his time again. 

"The other day in the national team, I gave a tackle to [Azpilicueta]. I did it on purpose. I'm not ashamed to say it because he did something stupid to my player. Acting big to my player," Ibrahimovic told The Guardian. 

"It was a stupid thing but I would still do it to make him understand: 'You don’t f****** do that. You don't have balls to do it against me. But I will show you what happens if you do it to me.' That’s why I did it. 

"It's not about missing the play-offs. It's about making the guy understand you don't take the p*** out of somebody laying [on the ground]. You don't attack a dog that doesn't talk. Attack the one able to do something. It's too easy to pick on my team-mates who are 20 years old and very nice guys. I hope he understands now. 

"I'm not afraid to say it to you. I did a stupid thing. [But] I will do it again. 100 per cent. 

"That is what I say about being 'perfect'. Being myself is perfect for me. I don't need filters to ask them what kind of questions you will give me." 

Asked if Azpilicueta had said anything to him after the game, Ibrahimovic replied: "What can he say? He will not say it to me but he will say it to my player – who will do nothing because he's too nice. 

"It was not a good thing by me, but I would still do it. That's me. I'm not ashamed to say it." 

Gareth Southgate says it would have been "very difficult to live with" walking away from the England job with a potentially "very exciting" few years ahead.

England manager Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland on Monday signed new contracts until December 2024.

The former Three Lions defender will lead his country in the World Cup next year and attempt to go one better by winning the next European Championship in three years' time.

Southgate led England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and they were beaten by Italy in the final of the rescheduled Euro 2020 at Wembley in June.

The 51-year-old feels he has unfinished business after coming so close to winning a first major tournament since 1966.

He said in a media conference: "The reality is we had already agreed [to stay]. Although we didn't feel it right to announce things before we qualified for the World Cup we knew what we wanted to do.

"In football, when you have a team who are a good team and you've done a lot of the work culturally, where they are at a point where they can challenge, you want to have a go.

"We still believe that's possible [to win a trophy]. It's an aim we should have as a team. To step away at a moment when the next few years could be very exciting, I think that could have been very difficult to live with.

"If this contract is the last I think I would still only be 53 by the end of it and I'd like to think I have a long life to live after that."

 

He added: "There was never a consideration that I wouldn't go to Qatar. What I wanted to be sure of was that I was wholly committed beyond that.

"It is something I feel deserved time. The way it ended for us [in Euro 2020] took a lot of emotion and energy. We were so quickly into World Cup qualifying, I wanted to allow that time for consideration."

Southgate feels England have learned from the heartbreak of falling short in the past two major tournaments.

"I think the players are at a point now where they're getting lots of big match experience, we've had a couple of near misses which, while painful, are games we've learned so much from," he said.

"We have to be at the latter stages consistently. It's the process of winning for any team, we're starting to get to those latter stages consistently and we must continue to do that.

"The response from the fans and the nation has been incredibly fulfilling. There was a period I heard people saying they didn't care about international football but I think that was a case of being hurt.

"It's been unbelievably rewarding [uniting the fans]. The players care about playing for England, there are moments when they break, when they're under huge pressure, but we've been able to refresh the team and bring new players in and whoever we have selected has performed at a really consistent level."

Gareth Southgate has signed a new deal to extend his stay as England manager through to December 2024, the Football Association (FA) has confirmed.

It means Southgate will remain in charge for the Three Lions' World Cup campaign in Qatar next year, and oversee qualifying for Euro 2024.

Southgate's assistant Steve Holland has also penned fresh terms to remain in his role.

"I am delighted that Steve and I have been able to extend our stay in our respective roles. It remains an incredible privilege to lead this team," Southgate said via an FA statement on Monday.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mark, John and the board for their support – and of course the players and support team for their hard work. 

"We have a great opportunity in front of us and I know they and the fans are all excited about what this squad could achieve in future."

Southgate initially took on the role on an interim basis in September 2016 after Sam Allardyce's tenure lasted just one match and 67 days after he became embroiled in newspaper accusations that he offered advice on how to circumvent rules on player signings.

Two months later, Southgate was appointed to the position on a permanent basis and oversaw qualification to the 2018 World Cup.

In Russia, England achieved their best result in international football's most prestigious tournament since 1990 with a run to the semi-finals, where they were defeated 2-1 by Croatia.

England went on to secure a third-place finish in the inaugural Nations League Finals a year later, before easily qualifying for Euro 2020.

That tournament was postponed by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic but Southgate then guided England to just a second ever major tournament final appearance, where his side agonisingly lost out in a penalty shoot-out to Italy after a 1-1 draw at Wembley in July.

Having regrouped to secure a relatively safe passage to Qatar, Southgate has been rewarded with a new deal.

The FA's statement added: "Southgate, who marks five years in charge at the end of this month, has overseen a period of positive progress guiding England to a FIFA World Cup semi-final and UEFA Nations League third place before securing the best men’s performance in 55 years with the UEFA EURO final this summer."

Under Southgate's stewardship, England have won 44 of 68 matches (drawing 14 and losing 10) giving him a win percentage of 65. They have scored 152 times and conceded 42 in that time.

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