World Cup play-offs: Portugal and Italy face crucial semi-finals

The World Cup 2022 playoffs are set to take place over the next fortnight with the final three European berths yet to be decided ahead of this winter’s tournament in Qatar.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos has described the coming days as the most important challenge of his time in charge.

Portugal will play Turkey on March 24 in Porto with the winners to face either Italy or North Macedonia five days later in a game that will determine one of the last three spots left for European teams at Qatar 2022, which kicks off in November.

Veteran Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo was named in the 25-man squad that will start their preparation on Monday.

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Highlights of the World Cup qualifying group A match between Portugal and Serbia.

“It’s simple: we need to win, nothing else matters,” Santos told a news conference.

“This is the most important challenge I had as Portugal manager. Not the most difficult, the most important. We must be in the World Cup for our people. The tickets were sold out in minutes more than a month ago. Our fans will be a major factor and we can’t let them down.”

Portugal squad

Goalkeepers: Rui Patrício (Roma), Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Diogo Costa (Porto).

Defenders: Cédric Soares (Arsenal), Diogo Dalot (Manchester United), João Cancelo (Manchester City), Gonçalo Inácio (Sporting Lisboa), José Fonte (Lille), Pepe (Porto), Nuno Mendes (Paris St Germain), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund).

Midfielders: Danilo (Paris Saint Germain), Rúben Neves (Wolves), William Carvalho (Betis), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), João Moutinho (Wolves), Matheus Nunes (Sporting Lisboa), Otávio (Porto), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City).

Forwards: André Silva (Leipzig), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Diogo Jota (Liverpool), Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia), João Félix (Atletico Madrid), Rafael Leão (Milan).

In his eight years as Portugal manager, Santos won the 2016 European Championship and reached the last-16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The coach is confident that his team, who dropped into the play-offs after losing their final group stage qualifier to Serbia, can go through if they keep their cool.

“We are in this spiral of drama that is not positive for us,” Santos said.

“We lost one game in the last seven games. There were things that didn’t go well, but we just didn’t win a game against Serbia.

“We were very upset about that, but now it’s about taking what was positive and win again. Talent wins games, but a team wins championships. Players know that and they are in the right mindset.”

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How do the play-offs work?

Ten group runners-up are joined by the two best group winners from the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League overall ranking that have neither qualified directly as group winners, nor entered the play-offs already as group runners-up.

These 12 teams were drawn into three play-off paths for one-off semi-finals and a final. The three path winners qualify for the World Cup.

Balotelli overlooked by Italy

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Highlights of the World Cup qualifying Group C match between Northern Ireland and Italy.

Mario Balotelli was overlooked by Italy coach Roberto Mancini for the upcoming World Cup play-offs, with 30-year-old Cagliari striker Joao Pedro given his first call-up to the squad instead.

Balotelli, who plays in Turkey, last appeared for the Azzurri in 2018 but returned to the setup during the international break in January for a get-together during which no matches were played.

Widespread reports suggested Mancini, who worked with Balotelli at Inter Milan and Manchester City, would bring the 31-year-old back in for next Thursday’s semi-final against North Macedonia, but Brazilian-born Joao Pedro got the nod instead.

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Image: Jorginho could be a crucial player once more for Italy

Italy squad

Goalkeepers: Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris St Germain), Pierluigi Gollini (Tottenham), Salvatore Sirigu (Genoa).

Defenders: Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Emerson Palmieri (Lyon), Alessandro Florenzi (Milan), Luiz Felipe (Lazio), Gianluca Mancini (Roma).

Midfielders:Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Jorginho (Chelsea), Manuel Locatelli (Juventus), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Matteo Pessina (Atalanta), Stefano Sensi (Sampdoria), Sandro Tonali (Milan), Marco Verratti (Paris St Germain).

Forwards:Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Joao Pedro (Cagliari), Matteo Politano (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo), Gianluca Scamacca (Sassuolo) Mattia Zaccagni (Lazio), Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma).

Lazio defender Luiz Felipe has also received his first call-up, while veteran centre-back pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are included despite both missing recent Juventus matches through injury.

Italy will host North Macedonia on March 24 at Palermo’s Stadio Barbera in front of a capacity crowd after COVID-19 measures were lifted this week, with the winners facing either Portugal or Turkey in the playoff final for a spot at Qatar 2022.

Will Czech Republic or Sweden face Poland?

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Highlights of the World Cup European Qualifying Group E match between Czech Republic and Wales.

Czech Republic will be without Patrik Schick for their World Cup play-off against Sweden.

Schick, top scorer for Bayer Leverkusen, has not played since tearing a calf muscle in February.

His presence in the playoff game at Solna, Sweden, on March 24 would have boosted the Czechs’ chances of qualifying for the World Cup after 16 years.

Coach Jaroslav Silhavy has other injury worries with his entire first-choice defence from the European Championship last year not available, including West Ham defender Vladimír Coufal.

But frontline midfielder Antonin Barak has recovered from an injury to be picked. The Sweden-Czech winner will face Poland for a spot at the tournament in Qatar.

How else does the Ukraine-Russia crisis impact the play-off?

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Away from Scotland and Ukraine’s postponement, Poland refused to play their forthcoming World Cup play-off with Russia in March following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

FIFA has announced that Poland will be given a bye, and are scheduled to face Sweden or Czech Republic on March 29 for a place in the finals in Qatar in November.

FIFA initially announced that Russia could play in the World Cup qualifiers, but the matches will be played on a neutral level with no spectators, without flags or national anthems and Russia will play under the name ‘Football Union of Russia (RFU)’.

The Sweden and the Czech Republic football associations also refused to play against Russia in any new format, throwing the World Cup path and playoff fixtures into doubt.

However, FIFA and UEFA later suspended Russia from international competition.

The Polish FA has also offered to host all Ukraine home matches while Ukraine are unable to play in their own country.

When are the play-offs scheduled for?

Path A

Scotland vs Ukraine – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – Postponed until June

Wales vs Austria – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports

Path B

Russia vs Poland – Thursday, March 24 (5.00pm kick-off) – Cancelled: Poland given bye

Sweden vs Czech Republic – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports

Path C

Italy vs North Macedonia – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports

Portugal vs Turkey – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports

Play-off finals: Tuesday, March 29 – live on Sky Sports

What is the World Cup format and schedule?

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will feature 32 teams in eight groups of four.

Four matches will be played each day during the group stage, which will run over a 12-day period and see winners and runners-up progress to the round of 16.

Matches will only be assigned to particular venues after the finals draw, so organisers can choose optimal kick-off times to suit television audiences in different countries, as well as supporters out in Qatar.

The finals draw is scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 3, after the March window for international fixtures.

Unlike at Euro 2020, there will be a third-place play-off game on December 17.

Group stage: November 21- December 2
Round of 16: December 3-6
Quarter-finals: December 9/10
Semi-finals: December 13/14
Final: December 18