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Lightning strikes twice; Italy miss back-to-back FIFA World Cups for first time

Jorginho (right) is crestfallen after Italy were shocked by North Macedonia in a gargantuan upset.
Jorginho (right) is crestfallen after Italy were shocked by North Macedonia in a gargantuan upset.
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There was perhaps something in the air in Palermo on Friday that suggested it wasn't going to be Italy's night.

The Azzurri - reigning European champions - produced a near-perfect qualification campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Italy were unbeaten in eight games, winning four, drawing as many and conceding just twice. However, they were beaten to top spot by Switzerland, who also produced an unbeaten campaign.

Roberto Mancini's men could have won both games against the group leaders, if not for missed penalties from the ever-reliable Jorginho. Finishing runner-up in the group meant the Azzurri had to navigate the treacherous playoff route to book their place in Qatar. However, Mancini and co. would stumble at the first hurdle.

Against North Macedonia at home in the playoff semis, Italy endured a night where the ball simply refused to bulge the visitors' net. The Azzurri had a whopping 32 shots on goal - five of them on target - but it was the visitors' fifth shot on goal, just their second on target, that sealed Italy's fate.

Just as extra time loomed in Palermo, Aleksandar Trajkovski beat Gianluigi Donnarumma with a fabulous long-range effort in the 92nd minute to break Italian hearts. The Azzurri were crestfallen, and there was simply not enough time for the hosts to muster a response.

Defeat at the Renzo Barbera meant Italy missed out on consecutive FIFA World Cups for the very first time in their rich history.

NORTH MACEDONIA IN THE 92ND MINUTE! πŸ‡²πŸ‡°ITALY AREN'T GOING TO THE 2022 WORLD CUP 🀯 https://t.co/S0N7rsI0R4

The Azzurri had missed the bus to Russia 2018 after losing to Sweden by a solitary goal across a two-legged playoff. That marked their first absence from the quadrennial showpiece in six decades. However, four years later, lightning would strike again.

Italy won't be at Qatar 2022, something that would take a while to sink in for the players and the team's fans. Mancini's men are one of the best teams in the world. However, they weren't clinical enough when it mattered most and paid the price for their wastefulness.

After winning their first three World Cup 2022 qualifying games without conceding, the Azzurri were held to stalemates in four of their next five. That included a pair of damaging draws against table-toppers Switzerland that would come back to haunt Mancini's side.

Italy weren't clinical enough when it mattered most

Italy have struggled for goals, especially against the top teams, since their triumphant Euro 2020 campaign last summer. They have scored only ten times in eight games across competitions since then. Five of them came against modest Lithuania at home.

Against North Macedonia on Friday, the Azzurri took the attack to the opposition from the get-go. However, profligate finishing and the absence of a bonafide target man would prove to be their undoing.

1 - For the first time in their history #Italy have lost an home match in the World Cup Qualifiers - in 60 home games: W48 D11 L1. Frustration.#ItalyvsMacedonia #italyvsnorthmacedonia https://t.co/CwdIbTmm8o

Would there be repercussions for the North Macedonia defeat? There could be, as the Azzurri lost a home World Cup qualifier for the first time in 61 games. However, head coach Mancini is likely to remain at the helm. He has done an admirable job transforming the fortunes of a team that was smarting from the failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup to eventually winning Euro 2020.

However, less than 12 months later, Mancini has work to do. The acclaimed manager will not need to start from scratch all over again, though. He has an established core capable of challenging the world's elite teams.

It remains to be seen how Mancini and co. will rise from the ashes again, as the next major tournament (Euro 2024) is not too far away. For now, though, a generation of Italy's finest players will have an unwanted winter of rest at home while the best in the world slug it out in Qatar for the top title in international football.


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Edited by Parimal
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