World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (219)

Gareth Bale described the criticism he has been the subject of as a Real Madrid player as "disgusting" after leading Wales into a World Cup play-off final.

Bale has played in just five of Madrid's 42 matches in all competitions this season, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of three whole games.

Once the most expensive player in world football, the winger was absent for Madrid's most recent match, a painful 4-0 defeat to bitter rivals Barcelona.

However, Bale was back and back to his best when Wales came calling on Thursday.

The 32-year-old captained his country to a 2-1 win against Austria in their play-off semi-final, scoring two sublime goals – the first a breathtaking free-kick.

Bale appeared to play through the pain barrier in a brilliant display, eventually making way while holding his groin.

The former Tottenham man appeared to enjoy the celebrations, but his tone shifted slightly when asked if he had a message for his critics in Spain.

"No," he told Sky Sports. "I don't need to send a message, honestly. It's a waste of my time.

"It's disgusting, they should all be ashamed of themselves. I'm not fussed. End of."

Bale has come into form at a great time for Wales, scoring five goals in his past four international appearances – more than in his previous 28 games for his country (four).

In European qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, only five players have been involved in more goals than Bale's eight (five goals, three assists).

Wales will play either Scotland or Ukraine for a place in Qatar, with that decider at home, where Bale and Co. are unbeaten in 17 games in all competitions.

Blagoja Milevski felt North Macedonia "won Italian style against the Italians" after his side sensationally ended the European champions' bid to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Aleksandar Trajkovski's long-range stoppage-time strike secured a stunning upset for the underdogs in a World Cup qualifying semi-final at Renzo Barbera on Thursday.

Italy dominated the game in Palermo, but failed to find the back of the net from 32 shots and were made to pay for their lack of a cutting edge.

Trajkovski's brilliant finish was North Macedonia's second shot on target as they set up a showdown with Portugal at Estadio do Dragao next Tuesday for a place in the finals in Qatar.

North Macedonia head coach Milevski felt his team played Italy at their own game.

"We won Italian style against the Italians, a goal from just two shots," he said. 

"I'm very happy for this victory, I'm proud for these guys. All energy from tomorrow will be on Portugal.

"I am very happy for Trajkovski with his goal. The game was prepared in this way, we know that Italy are a great team with several champions but we played as we should.

"We know our strengths. Before the game I told the guys to have fun and they did just that."

North Macedonia have never played in a World Cup and will have to pull off another major surprise in Porto to beat a Portugal side that beat Turkey 3-1 on Thursday.

Cristiano Ronaldo's dip in goalscoring form is of no concern to Fernando Santos, who felt he was "tremendous" in Portugal's World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final success against Turkey. 

First-half efforts from Otavio and Diogo Jota put Portugal in control in Porto, but Burak Yilmaz pulled one back after the hour mark and had a chance to equalise from the penalty spot with five minutes remaining. 

However, Yilmaz missed the target from 12 yards and Matheus Nunes completed a 3-1 win for the hosts in stoppage time, with Ronaldo hitting the bar in the final act of the game. 

The Manchester United forward had five efforts on goal and hit the target with two of them. Diogo Jota (38), who played 20 minutes fewer than Ronaldo, was Portugal's only outfield starter with fewer touches than him (40).  

Ronaldo also failed to find the back of the net in Portugal's draw with the Republic of Ireland and the defeat to Serbia that cost Santos' men automatic qualification for Qatar. 

He has scored just four goals in his past 13 appearances in all competitions for club and country, but the Portugal boss is unconcerned by his displays. 

"Ronaldo is judged on the goals he scores, it's always that way," said Santos. 

"From my perspective, he played a tremendous game, bringing the group together, working and pressing with the intensity of the game. 

"He didn't score, but that doesn't invalidate what was an excellent performance for Ronaldo. He had several opportunities. He didn't convert them, but he opened up a lot of spaces for others and that's something to highlight."

Ronaldo is one of several veterans in the side that it has been suggested should be phased out by Santos to make way for a new generation, but the coach spoke out in defence of the more experienced options at his disposal. 

"The one that everyone is asking to be replaced is the only golden generation. I'm very sorry to say this, but it is the only one that has brought a trophy to Portugal," he said. 

"Now, if you ask me if Portuguese football has a bright future ahead of it, with high-quality players capable of responding at any time, I'd say yes. 

"Portugal have always had great players, but the golden generation is the one that won the gold." 

Jorginho admits his missed penalties earlier in the campaign will haunt him forever following Italy's failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

The Azzurri were crowned Euro 2020 champions just eight months ago after beating England in the final on penalties.

However, Roberto Mancini's side will not be at the World Cup later this year after they were stunned 1-0 by North Macedonia in the playoff semi-finals.

Although the hosts dominated proceedings in Palermo, Aleksandar Trajkovski struck in stoppage time to give the visitors a shock victory.

Having drawn four of their last five games, Italy had to settle for a playoff place after finishing two points behind Switzerland in Group C.

Among them was a 1-1 stalemate with the Swiss, during which Jorginho missed two penalties that would have seen the Azzurri displace their opponents in top spot.

And the Chelsea midfielder revealed his sense of responsibility for his nation’s subsequent failure to qualify.

"It is difficult to explain what happened," he told RAI Sport. "It hurts so much. I'll be honest, I am still incredulous. 

"I don't think we lacked creativity, as we always dominated matches and created so many chances. Unfortunately, we were unable to finish them off.

"We played good football, we won the European Championship last summer, but unfortunately in the last few games, we made small errors and were unable to recover from them. They made the difference.

"It hurts when I think about [the missed penalties], because I do still think about it, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life.

"Stepping up there twice and not being able to help your team and your country is something that I will carry with me forever, and it weighs on me.

"People say we need to lift our heads and carry on, but it's tough."

Meanwhile, team-mate Marco Verratti acknowledged that the reigning European champions were made to pay after failing to turn their superiority into goals.

"It is difficult to understand. I think we dominated this match, and we should've won. We had to win," the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder added.

"This is football, it is fundamental to be clinical and ruthless. It's just so difficult to explain. It was a nightmare.

"Looking around the locker room, we had the players to challenge for the tournament itself, yet here we are talking about a disaster. It's so tough to go from hero to zero.

"We experienced special times together, and I will always be proud of my team-mates. 

"We have to ask ourselves questions now. There's some bad luck, but you also need to make your own luck."

Roberto Mancini has been backed to stay on as head coach by FIGC president Gabriele Gravina despite Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. 

The Azzurri succumbed to a sensational 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in a play-off semi-final in Palermo on Thursday, ending their hopes of securing a place in the tournament in Qatar this year. 

Having missed out on a spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Italy will not feature in two successive editions of the competition for the first time in their history. 

However, with Mancini having led the team on a 37-game unbeaten run that included Euro 2020 glory and only ended last October, Gravina still believes he is the right man for the job. 

"I hope Mancini will continue with us. He has a commitment to the project," Gravina told Rai Sport. 

"I hope, like all the other Italians, that he will dispose of the waste from this elimination and remain at the helm to continue our work. I still have a lot of energy. 

"I'm sorry, I'm truly embittered for all our fans. The great joy of the previous summer remains, but also the great bitterness of this defeat. We didn't expect it. 

"The guys were splendid and will continue to be so. They gave our country an extraordinary dream just a few months ago. However, tonight's defeat makes us understand there is something we need to do."

Gravina wanted the previous round of Serie A fixtures be postponed to give Italy more time to prepare for the game but his request was denied by the league. 

"I'm sorry the boys only met for one day to prepare for the game. It doesn't help, but I don't want to cause a controversy," he added. 

Italy have failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup following a shock 1-0 defeat by North Macedonia on Thursday.

For the first time in their history, the Azzurri will miss out on successive finals after Aleksandar Trajkovski struck a stoppage-time winner at Renzo Barbera.

Roberto Mancini's side triumphed at Euro 2020 just eight months ago, defeating England on penalties in the final to claim their second title.

But four years after their playoff defeat by Sweden denied them a place in Russia, they will be absent in Qatar after suffering their first ever loss on home soil in a World Cup qualifier.

It is fair to say it has been quite the journey from one World Cup qualifying failure to another.

Swede success

Despite finishing behind Spain in their qualifying group, Italy were heavy favourites to overcome Sweden in a two-legged playoff.

However, Jakob Johansson struck the only goal of the opening leg to set up a tense climax in Milan.

The Azzurri dominated their opponents, but the Swedes stood firm to deny them a place at the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.

Euro 2020 glory

Failure to qualify for Russia culminated in the departure of Gian Piero Ventura, who was replaced in the hot-seat by Mancini.

Despite winning just one of his first six matches in charge, things eventually clicked into gear for the former Inter and Manchester City coach, who oversaw a perfect qualifying campaign for the delayed Euro 2020.

The Azzurri came flying out of the blocks; topping Group A with maximum points before seeing off Austria, Belgium and Spain, before holding their nerve to overcome England on penalties for a second European crown.

The record-breaking run

In fact, Italy did not look back after a 1-0 defeat by Portugal in the Nations League in September 2018.

The Azzurri subsequently embarked on a record-breaking 37-match unbeaten run across all competitions spanning three years.

The streak came to an end following a 2-1 defeat by Spain in the Nations League semi-finals last October.

North Macedonia mayhem

Despite going unbeaten in qualifying, four draws from their last five matches meant Italy had to settle for second place in Group C and another playoff berth.

Once again, the Azzurri were red-hot favourites to overcome North Macedonia, who are seeking their first appearance at the finals as an independent nation.

But despite 32 attempts on goal, the hosts were unable to make their superiority count in Palermo, and were punished right at the death as the visitors stunned the four-time world champions.

Gareth Bale scored a pair of stunning goals to secure a home World Cup play-off final for Wales against either Scotland or Ukraine.

Wales have not qualified for a World Cup since 1958 and surely will not get a better opportunity than ahead of Qatar 2022.

Rob Page's side hosted Austria in their play-off semi-final on Thursday and once again relied on Real Madrid superstar Bale to prove the difference in a 2-1 win.

He netted the opener with a sublime first-half free-kick, then doubled Wales' lead with another brilliant effort, placed high past the Austria goalkeeper.

Only a Ben Davies own goal – deflecting Marcel Sabitzer's shot beyond Wayne Hennessey – threatened to spoil the Welsh party, as they held on despite Bale's withdrawal in stoppage time with an apparent groin injury.

Bale will at least have time to recover from that issue before the final, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine saw the former banned from FIFA competitions and the latter allowed to postpone their semi against Scotland.

No date has yet been set for the Scotland tie, with Steve Clarke's men instead facing Poland – Russia's planned play-off opponents – in a friendly they drew 1-1 on Thursday.

Krzysztof Piatek's 94th-minute penalty rescued a draw for Poland, albeit that goal came earlier than Sweden's decisive strike against Czech Republic.

Sweden will be Poland's final opponents after Robin Quaison finished off a smart team move with 10 minutes remaining in extra time following a goalless draw – that 1-0 victory teeing up the trip to Chorzow on Tuesday.

Roberto Mancini described Italy's shock World Cup qualifying play-off exit to North Macedonia as the antithesis of the Azzurri's Euro 2020 triumph.

Only eight months have passed since Mancini's men defeated England in a penalty shoot-out at Wembley to be crowned European champions.

But tears of joy were replaced by howls of agony in Palermo on Thursday as Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute strike earned the minnows a memorable victory and a final against Portugal in pathway C of UEFA qualification.

For head coach Mancini, the chain of events since that day in London – including his side's failure to qualify from Group C – is difficult to fathom.

"Just as the Euros was the most wonderful experience of my life, this was the biggest disappointment," he told Rai.

"We can't say anything but this is football. Sometimes incredible things happen.

"Maybe we shouldn't have been there, we did everything to win it. Some matches are like that and it's difficult to talk about it. 

"The victory at the Euros was absolutely deserved, we played great football. Then some of the luck we had in that tournament turned into complete bad luck, as some unbelievable things happened from September onwards.

"We dominated the group, all we needed was one of those moments to go well, but neither of them did. Tonight, it feels almost as if conceding a goal at the 92nd minute was fitting.

"This is a group of fine players and I am sorry for them."

The loss is sure to lead to questions over Mancini's future, with even his Euros triumph unlikely to buy him much favour after a desperately disappointing defeat, which means Italy have failed to qualify for consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

But Mancini said it would be wrong to discuss such matters so soon after the event.

"We will see. I think everyone is too disappointed right now to talk about the future," he added.

"I have to say, I care more for my lads now than I did in July. This is such a tough moment, my affection for them is immense. 

"It's too early to say what happens next, as there is such disappointment, but at the same time this is a squad of great players with a bright future."

Italy have done all this before.

The Azzurri were World Cup regulars – and contenders – until remarkably failing to qualify for the first time since the 1958 tournament when they were beaten by Sweden in the play-offs for Russia 2018.

Of course, Italy feared a repeat when they were consigned to the play-off route again for Qatar 2022, but a potential final against Portugal was surely of greater concern than a home semi with North Macedonia.

Sensationally, however, the visitors stunned the European champions in Palermo, where Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute blast secured the unlikeliest of 1-0 wins.

It means Italy are yet again featuring on a list of shock World Cup absentees.

ITALY/SPAIN 1958

Until these past two upsets, Italy's only failure to qualify for the World Cup had come in the 1950s. Needing to beat Northern Ireland in their final game of the three-team group, the Azzurri slumped to a 2-1 loss in Belfast. More surprising was the absence of Spain, as a team of legends including Alfredo Di Stefano and Luis Suarez missed out on a place in Sweden. A draw with Switzerland and defeat to Scotland meant that 4-1 victories in both return matches were not enough to salvage their hopes.

ENGLAND 1974

England were on top of the world in 1966 having lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home turf. It remains the Three Lions' only triumph at a World Cup and, eight years later, England were not even at the tournament held in West Germany. In a three-team group with Wales and Poland, a 2-0 defeat and 1-1 draw with the latter meant Alf Ramsey's side did not qualify. Twenty years later, England again disappointed as they failed to qualify for USA '94 under Graham Taylor.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA 1978

Having won the European Championship two years previously with their attractive brand of football, there were high hopes for Czechoslovakia heading into qualifying for the tournament in Argentina. However, battles of Britain proved their downfall as losses in Wales and Scotland scuppered their hopes of adding World Cup glory to their European triumph.

NETHERLANDS 1986

After reaching the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978, there was a down period for Netherlands, who missed out in '82 and also failed to qualify for Euro '84. A crop of players including Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco van Basten were expected to bring about a turnaround in fortunes for the Dutch ahead of the next World Cup in Mexico. However, they had to settle for a play-off against neighbours Belgium after finishing second in their qualifying group, and Georges Grun's header with just five minutes left on the clock saw them crash out on away goals. Netherlands also failed to qualify in 2002 and were not in Russia four years ago.

FRANCE 1994

Les Bleus had failed to qualify for Italia '90 having finished third in 1986. That failure was accepted as something of a transitional period, but a star-studded team featuring the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were unable to secure the necessary result against Bulgaria in their final qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. France led through Eric Cantona but were pegged back by an Emil Kostadinov leveller before half-time. Gerard Houllier's side looked set to cling on to the point that would see them through until David Ginola infamously gave the ball away with an ill-judged cross in the final minute that allowed Kostadinov to make it 2-1 on the break, leaving French hopes dashed.

EGYPT 2010

Incredibly, Egypt's appearance at the 2018 World Cup was their first since 1990. That is despite their 2000s domination of the Africa Cup of Nations, with three consecutive victories between 2006 and 2010. Their failure to reach South Africa 12 years ago was arguably the greatest disappointment. After finishing with an identical record to Algeria, a play-off was needed to separate the two, with Egypt falling to a 1-0 defeat to extend their wait for a return to the global stage.

CHILE 2018

The depth of talent in South America means there are always likely to be notable casualties, but even then the two-time defending Copa America champions would have expected to contend on a global stage in Russia. However, Chile could only finish sixth in an incredibly tight group, without even a play-off to show for their efforts while Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to qualification with a hat-trick against Ecuador – his own participation in the finals having been in question until that point.

Italy were "destroyed" by their shock defeat to North Macedonia, with Giorgio Chiellini saying their failure to qualify for the World Cup opened "a great void". 

The reigning European champions fell to a surprise 1-0 defeat at home to North Macedonia, with former Palermo attacker Aleksandar Trajkovski netting a surprise winner for the visitors in the 92nd minute. 

Italy have now failed to qualify for two straight World Cups. They will not be able to feature on that stage until 2026, with their only win in the competition since they triumphed in 2006 coming against England in the 2014 group stage.

The defeat to North Macedonia marked an incredible turnaround in fortunes for Italy, who won Euro 2020 as part of a 37-game undefeated streak that ended in October – a month after they dropped valuable points against Bulgaria and Switzerland in their World Cup qualifying group. 

Roberto Mancini's side ended up missing out on top spot to Switzerland after two further draws, and their capitulation at the Renzo Barbera was tough for Chiellini to take. 

"It's hard to explain. There is great disappointment. We played a great match but just couldn't score," Chiellini told Rai Sport. 

"We weren't presumptuous. We were missing something. We made mistakes from September until today and we paid for them. 

"I am proud of this team, but it's obvious we are disappointed and destroyed. We have to start again. 

"It's difficult to comment so quickly. There will remain a great void and I hope this void will give the energy needed to restart. We have to start against to win again and get back to the top of the European Championship and in four years go to the World Cup." 

Veteran defender Chiellini refused to confirm whether the loss would prove to be his final match for Italy, saying "now is not the right moment."

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