Rome: Four years after failing to qualify for the World Cup, European champion Italy needs a strong performance at Northern Ireland tonight to be sure of a spot at next year’s tournament in Qatar.
The Azzurri lead Switzerland on goal difference entering the final round of qualifiers, with Switzerland hosting Bulgaria.
Italy and Switzerland each have 15 points, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria have eight each and Lithuania trails with three.
Goal difference is the first tiebreaker and Italy leads Switzerland 11-9 in the category. Italy also leads on goals scored (13 to 11).
But if the teams finish level on goal difference and goals scored, Switzerland will finish first courtesy of away goals in their head-to-head meetings after a 0-0 draw in Basel and a 1-1 draw in Rome.
Only the first-place finisher gets a direct spot into the finals. The second-place team goes into the playoffs in March, needing to advance past two opponents to reach the World Cup. Italy lost a playoff to Sweden in 2017.