BELFAST: Italy have a horrible history against Northern Ireland and the latest upset, a goalless draw in Belfast, dropped the European champions into the qualifying playoffs if they want to reach next year’s World Cup finals in Qatar.
Switzerland, who went into the Group C’s final qualifying matches in second place, came through to overtake the Azzurri and win the group by thumping Bulgaria 4-0.
Back in 1958 a qualifying defeat in Belfast denied Italy a place in the finals in Sweden. They were absent only again in 2018 after losing to Sweden in the playoffs.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini said: “In March we will try to give our best. “At the moment we are struggling to score goals, despite dominating possession. Northern Ireland put everyone in defence and we struggle to break sides like that down.”
Injury-hit Italy, who began the match without a recognised striker in the absence of Ciro Immobile.
Northern Ireland had not conceded a goal at home in their previous four qualifiers and set up to frustrate the Italians, despite being unable to qualify for the finals themselves.
The visitors created little in the opening period, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s effort from a tight angle, which was well saved by Bailey Peacock-Farrell, as close as they came.
After the break, the hosts’ George Saville missed a great opportunity to make Italy’s task all the more difficult, before Federico Chiesa drilled just wide down the other end.
Mancini threw on several other forward options as he looked to boost his side’s attacking threat, but the home team, in truth, never looked troubled.
Northern Ireland produced their best performance of the qualifying campaign and might even have won. Substitute Conor Washington saw a last-minute effort was cleared off the line. The draw secured a third-place finish in the table for Ian Baraclough’s men.
Italy go into the March playoffs despite finishing their World Cup qualification campaign unbeaten — four draws since their Euro 2020 success being their downfall.