Italy was dealt a major blow to its World Cup qualifying hopes just four months after being crowned European champion.
Northern Ireland held Italy to a scoreless draw, while Switzerland beat Bulgaria 4–0 in a simultaneous group finale to leapfrog the Azzurri for a first-place group finish and ensure that Italy will have to earn its place at the 2022 World Cup the hard way: a perilous, new playoff format that features two single-elimination games.
After losing to Sweden in the 2018 playoff and missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1958, Italy now must trust that it can prevail in the revamped last-chance saloon. The new UEFA playoff will feature the 10 group runners-up and the top two remaining UEFA Nations League teams.
On Nov. 26, the 12 nations will be drawn into three separate, four-team playoff brackets, where the sides will play a single-elimination semifinal and final. The winners of each playoff bracket will book the final three European tickets to Qatar.
As a seeded team in the playoff, Italy will be guaranteed a home game in the semifinal, but a draw will determine all of the final locations—if the team advances. Those games will be played during the March international break. Portugal, Russia and Sweden are some of the other prominent nations that have dropped into the playoff.
To be fair, it wasn't just Northern Ireland that stifled Italy's chances as the Azzurri drew four of its eight World Cup qualifiers. Italy entered the night needing to match Switzerland's result and come away on top in goal differential. It drew the Swiss 1-1 in Rome on Friday, which featured a missed Jorginho penalty that could've provided the group-winning goal for Italy.
Instead, Switzerland won the group and qualified for the World Cup after throttling Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Italy was lucky to come away with a point after a series of late Northern Ireland chances, including an open goal that saw a shot cleared off the line in the final minutes.
"We need to rediscover what has set us apart until now and remain completely calm until March," Italy manager Roberto Mancini said after the game.
For the Azzurri, it will be a long wait, one that will only invite more pressure after the 2018 World Cup debacle turned Euro triumph.