(Reuters) – The past two European champions could have to play against each other in a playoff for a place at next year’s World Cup as a consequence of failing to secure automatic qualification this week.
Both Italy, who won the continental title in July, and Portugal, who were winners of Euro 2016, will be on tenterhooks as they await the outcome of the draw for the March playoffs for the 12 European countries who remain in contention for three places at the World Cup.
They are the teams who finished runners-up in their group, plus two more who qualified by virtue of being the best two Nations League group winners who did not finish in the top two of the Qatar 2022 preliminaries.
Italy’s failure to win in Northern Ireland on Monday and Portugal’s home loss to Serbia the night before, has condemned the two heavyweights to needing to play two more games if they are to go to Qatar.
One consolation is they are both among the seeds for the Nov. 26 draw — which guarantees a home game in the semi-finals and therefore a major advantage.
The 12 contenders will be drawn into three separate four-team paths. There are a set of semi-finals in each stream on March 24 with the winners advancing to a decisive trio of “finals” on March 29.
Home advantage for the three finals will be decided by a draw but in the semi-finals it is Italy, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and Wales who are guaranteed a home match — as the six highest-ranked teams among the group runners-up in the qualifiers — against one of Austria, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine.
There is no other determinant for the draw so Italy and Portugal could land up in the same section, kept apart in the semis but possibly facing one another in a deciding tie.
In previous years, playoffs were determined over two legs, home and away, but with qualification for Qatar needing to be completed by the end of March, there is a no second chance this time round.
Italy will have bitter memories of losing to Sweden in the playoffs for Russia 2018, condemning them to miss a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo will no doubt remind his team that they triumphed over Sweden in a playoff ahead of the 2014 finals.
Two past World Cup runners-up came through the European play-offs: Germany beat Ukraine to qualify for the 2002 tournament, going on to lose the final to Brazil, while Croatia edged Greece before emerging surprise runners-up at Russia 2018.
(Editing by Christian Schmollinger)