No Ronaldo at the World Cup? Portugal handed horror play-off draw with Italy
One of Italy or Portugal will not qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the two titans were drawn in the same section of the European play-offs for the tournament.
Both seeded for Friday's draw, reigning European Champions Italy and 2016 continental kings Portugal were placed in the same 'path', meaning they are on a potential collision course if they want to book a place in next year's showpiece.
Elsewhere, Russia will have to negotiate a home semi-final with Poland before a potential final, also at home, against Sweden or the Czech Republic.
- Scotland vs Ukraine
- Wales vs Austria (winners have home advantage for section final)
- Russia vs Poland (winners have home advantage for section final)
- Sweden vs Czech Republic
- Italy vs North Macedonia
- Portugal vs Turkey (winners have home advantage for section final)
The draw saw a new format for the European play-offs as 12 teams who failed to qualify automatically during the group stage were divided into two sets of six – half of which were seeded and half of which weren’t.
The 12 teams were split into three ‘paths’, with the four teams in each section playing one-off semi-finals and then a final to determine which team from that section qualifies for Qatar.
Russia were among the seeded teams, and were also handed a home draw should they reach the final of their section.
This comes after Russia conceded a late own-goal on a rain-soaked pitch against group rivals Croatia in Split, which sent them into the play-offs when a draw would have guaranteed their spot at next year's tournament.
And while Russia won't be overawed against their Polish opponents, their talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski remains a potent force and the chief threat to Russia's progression to Qatar.
"It could have been better, it could have been worse, but it’s all on paper. There’s still four months until the play-offs, a lot can change,” said Russia manager Valery Karpin in response to the draw.
The semi-finals and finals will take place from March 24 to 29 next year.
Amid some intriguing ties, the headline-grabbing section was 'Path C', which pitted Portugal and four-time World Cup winners Italy in a possible showdown.
Italy famously missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia after failing to qualify, and will be desperate to avoid that fate again.
They must beat North Macedonia before contemplating a meeting with Portuguese.
"It's a very difficult draw for us,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said after the draw.
“North Macedonia are a good team and after, if we win, we’ve got to play the final away in Turkey or in Portugal. It’s very strong.”
Portugal missed out on automatic qualification for Qatar during the group stages after a last-gasp loss to Serbia in their last match.
They will now need to overcome Turkey and then potentially Italy if Ronaldo and Co. want to reach the Qatar showpiece, which runs from November to December next year.