Date:1st December 2021 at 12:15pm
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The draw for the European World Cup Play-offs was held on Friday the 26th of November, and it dealt a brutal blow to two of the biggest teams in Europe – Italy and Portugal. The current European Champions and the 2016 European Champions were drawn on the same side of the draw, meaning that at least one of them will end up missing on the World Cup finals in Qatar next year. Below we take a look at the format of the play-offs, the all-important dates, and Italy’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup.

How the 2022 FIFA World Cup Play-Offs Work

There were 12 teams that qualified for the World Cup play-offs, and six of these were seeded and put in Pot 1, while the remaining six teams were unseeded and put into Pot 2. The teams that were seeded were the six best runners-up and this was based on the number of points, goal difference, and goals scored.

Since some of the qualifying groups had one fewer team than the rest, the teams that finished as the runners-up in these groups had their points that they collected against the last placed team deducted from their total. The seeded teams not only had the advantage of missing out on playing other seeded teams in the play-off, but they also get to play the semi-final at home.

There are three play-off paths, with each path offering one World Cup spot. Semi-finals one and two make up play-off bracket A, semi-finals three and four make up play-off path B, while semi-finals five and six make up play-off path C. The winners of the semi-finals, which are one-leg, will meet in the final, with the winner qualifying for the World Cup. You can find out about the teams that are already their and their odds of winning at https://www.betinireland.ie/sports-betting/football/world-cup/. To determine which team will play each play-off final at home, an extra draw was carried out.

If there was one team from Pot 1 that that Italy did not want to be in the same path with it was Portugal. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that the Portugal wanted to be on the same path as Italy either. However, when the first four teams from Pot 1 were drawn and Italy and Portugal were the only ones left, there would have been a sigh of disbelief from both camps and their fans. When this path was thrown up, every other team in Pot 2 would have wanted to avoid Path C, but North Macedonia and Turkey were the two unfortunate teams.

Now, because of this draw, we will see either one of Portugal or Italy at next year’s World Cup, while there is also still the possibility that we see neither, if North Macedonia or Turkey can spring a couple of upsets. While Italy will play their semi-final leg at home, they were also in unlucky in the draw for the final location as if they make it to the final, they will have to play the final in Portugal or Turkey, depending on who makes it through.

When Will Italy Play Their Play-Offs?

Italy and Portugal fans, as well as the fans of all the other 10 competing nations, will have a nervous wait to see if their team will be competing at the biggest tournament in world football, since the semi-finals will take place on the 24th and 25th of March 2022. The Italy versus North Macedonia semi-final will kick-off at 20:45 CET. The finals will be played on the 28th and 29th of March. So, come around 23:00 CET on the 29th of March, we will know all of the European teams that will be playing at the World Cup next year.

What Are Italy’s Chances of Making it to the World Cup?

Out of the six teams in Pot 2, if Italy were given the chance to select the team that they would want to play, there is a very good chance that they would have picked North Macedonia. However, while all of the best bookmakers such as Bet365 and Betway have Italy as the clear favourites to go ahead and win this game, we do not think it will be as easy as many think it will be.

North Macedonia are in the play-offs on merit, and one of the main reasons why they beat the rest of their group to second spot is the fact that they got a magnificent 2-1 win away to Germany – this was Germany’s first loss in a World Cup qualifying match since 2001, when they lost 5-1 to England. Out of the 10 games that they played, they only lost two of them, scoring 23 goals and conceding just the 11. They will also be extra motivated to win because they have a chance to make it to their first ever World Cup tournament.

While we do not think it will be an easy match for the Azzurri, we do believe that they will eventually prevail and qualify for the play-off final, and it will more than likely be against Portugal. It is safe to say that all neutrals will probably be hoping for an Italy versus Portugal final because watching the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Diogo Jota, Renato Sanches, Pepe Federico Chiesa, Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, and Giorgio Chiellini battle it out for the final spot at the 2022 World Cup will be extremely entertaining.

Could Italy’s Lack of Cutting Edge Hinder Them?

So, what are Italy’s chances against Portugal, should that indeed end up being the final? Well, there is one main issue that that the Azzurri need to address, and this is their lack of cutting edge. It was an issue before the European Championship, and it has become an issue once again. They played eight games in their qualifying group, scoring 13 goals, but seven of these were scored against Lithuania, who finished bottom of the group. Their top scorers were Immobile, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Moise Kean with two goals apiece.

Some Italy fans and pundits have flagged the possibility of Joao Pedro being called up to solve their scoring issue. Pedro is Brazilian, but he is eligible to play for Italy because he has played in Italy for over ten years now. He has played for Cagliari for seven years, appearing 231 times for them and scoring 79 times. Others are suggesting that Roberto Mancini should call up Lorenzo Lucca, who is a youngster who has been on fire in the Serie B. There are even those who think that Mario Balotelli should be called back to the squad – he has scored 14 goals in 36 matches for the Azzurri.

There is no need to panic yet for Mancini, but he has a number of things that he needs to address before the semi-final against Italy. Have Italy become too predictable and pedantic? How can he get them scoring more goals? Should Jorginho be taking penalties still?

If he can address the scoring issue between now and March, then we think that Italy will overcome Portugal, should they meet in the final, since their strong point is their attack, and if there is one thing that the Italians still know how to do, it is defending. However, Mancini, his players, and their fans will not care if they go on to win the play-off semi-final and final 1-0, but if they do make it to Qatar next year, they will need more than that if they are to stand a chance of winning or going deep in the competition.