Paris: The World Cup hopes of the last two European champions are on a knife edge with Portugal and Italy on a collision course in decisive qualifying play-offs over the next week.
A potential clash in Porto between the Euro 2016 winners, captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, and an Italy team who succeeded them as continental champions last year is a mouth-watering prospect.
However, both must first come through semi-finals on Thursday that are far from foregone conclusions, with Portugal hosting Turkey and Italy facing North Macedonia.
Failure to reach this year’s World Cup would be a catastrophe for the Azzurri, who had gone to every finals since 1958 until missing out in 2018 when they lost a play-off to Sweden.
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It would be all the more remarkable given that they bounced back from that under Roberto Mancini to win Euro 2020 while on a world record 37-game unbeaten run.
Yet four draws in their last five World Cup qualifiers last autumn saw them finish second in their group to Switzerland, and now they must come through these two one-off ties to secure a place in the April 1 draw in Doha.
“Our goal is to win the World Cup, and to win the World Cup we have to win these two matches. There’s nothing else to say,” Mancini said on Monday.
Italy host North Macedonia in Palermo, and they will know not to take the Balkan nation of two million people lightly.
After all, they beat Germany away in qualifying last year before appearing at their first major tournament at Euro 2020, and they also held Italy to a damaging draw in Turin in qualifying for the last World Cup.
“We are not going to Italy as tourists, but to outplay (them) and to win,” said coach Bobi Milevski, who is aiming to take North Macedonia - born in 1991 out of the break-up of Yugoslavia - to their first World Cup.
Portugal skipper Ronaldo will be 41 come 2026, so Qatar surely represents his last chance to win the World Cup. Missing out altogether is unthinkable for the all-time top scorer in international football with 115 goals.
“We know the road will not be easy and we have full respect for our opponents, who share the same objective as us. But together we will fight to take Portugal where we belong,” Ronaldo posted on Instagram this week.
Portugal, who are ranked eighth in the world, two places behind Italy, must beat Turkey in Porto to reach the play-off final, in which they would have home advantage.
However, their two first-choice centre-backs have been ruled out - Manchester City’s Ruben Dias succumbed to injury before 39-year-old veteran Pepe tested positive for coronavirus.
Three World Cup berths from Europe remain up for grabs, with 10 teams led by holders France having already qualified.
The play-offs were meant to feature 12 teams, split into three separate paths, but they have been impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with both of those countries initially due to take part.
Hosts of the 2018 World Cup, Russia were excluded after being suspended by FIFA and UEFA until further notice.
That meant Poland getting a walkover to a final against either 2018 quarter-finalists Sweden or the Czech Republic, who meet in Solna on Thursday.
Wales vs Austria
Sweden vs Czech Republic
Italy vs North Macedonia
Portugal vs Turkey
Tuesday, March 29
Poland vs Sweden or Czech Republic
Portugal or Turkey vs Italy vs North Macedonia