On Thursday evening it was all up for grabs for eight European teams who were contesting the UEFA zone play-off semi-finals.
Plenty was at stake for Portugal and reigning European champions Italy, who had each missed out on direct qualifying, while for the likes of Austria and Czech Republic, the play-offs were a second bite at the cherry after they had won their respective UEFA Nations League 2020/21 groups to secure a spot in the European play-offs. And as we have come to expect from FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, this play-off night gave fans around the world plenty to talk about.
Thursday, 24 March
Wales 2-1 Austria
Italy 0-1 North Macedonia
Sweden 1-0 Czech Republic (AET)
Portugal 3-1 Turkey
Bale keeps Welsh dreams alive
Wales coach Robert Page’s decision to start Gareth Bale, even though he has had little in the way of playing time of late for Real Madrid, was perhaps the best decision of the evening. The 32-year-old bagged a brace for the Welsh to fire them into the play-off finals against either Scotland or Ukraine. Austria began the match on the front foot, but Bale turned the momentum around in the 25th minute with a highlight-reel free-kick. The visitors came out in the second half all guns blazing but once again it was Bale who halted them in their tracks, doubling Wales’s lead in the 51st minute. Austria refused to lay down and took the game to the home team, with Marcel Sabitzer firing a shot past Wayne Hennessey from distance that took a wicked deflection, but despite further pressure, the final score remained 2-1. Wales are now just one match away from qualifying for their first World Cup since 1958.
Deja vu all over again in Italy
David versus Goliath was played out in the form of North Macedonia versus Italy. The reigning European champions dominated the match but could not convert their possession into goals. The Azzurri attack was blunted by the defence of the 67th nation on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and they lacked the cutting edge required in their opponents’ penalty area. As time wore on, the threat of failing to qualify for a second World Cup in a row became a real possibility, and North Macedonia capitalised on Italy’s fear of missing out with Aleksandar Trajkovski completing the nightmare scenario for the home side in time added on. Italy tried to turn it around in the dying seconds, but it was to no avail, and after watching Russia 2018 from back home, they will be forced to do the same when Qatar 2022 comes around. North Macedonia, meanwhile, enjoyed probably their best-ever result, and will have a chance to build on their performance tonight in the play-off finals.
Quaison edges Sweden past Czechs in thriller
There was nothing to choose between Sweden and the Czech Republic for long periods of the match in Solna. Fans in the Friends Arena had no goals to cheer in the first 90 minutes, and the tie duly went into extra-time. After 110 minutes of play, Robin Quaison finally opened the scoring after an excellent one-two with Alexander Isak, sending the home crowd into raptures. Sweden can now book their ticket for a second World Cup appearance in a row, while the Czechs will have to return home empty-handed, despite putting up a brave fight in what was an exciting match.
Otavio the star in Portugal’s win over Turkey
Portugal’s World Cup dreams are still alive. Coach Fernando Santos’s team maintained their focus throughout the match against a valiant Turkey side, who fought hard but lacked the necessary efficiency spark up front. Otavio was the stand-out performer for the home team at the Estadio do Dragao, scoring the opener after Bernardo Silva had hit the post, before setting up Diogo Jota to make it 2-0 to the delight of the crowd, who are used to cheering him on in that very stadium for Porto. Burak Yilmaz halved the deficit for Stefan Kuntz’s men and then hit the top of the bar with a penalty late on. Matheus Nunes then made sure of the result in time added on, Portugal running out 3-1 winners.
Facts and figures
6 This was the sixth competitive meeting between Portugal and Turkey, and the sixth time that the Iberians have come away with the win. 7 Gareth Bale’s opener was his seventh goal from a free-kick for his country.
What they said
“We’re hugely disappointed. We played well but a goal was missing. I’m proud of my teammates. We’re devastated.”
“The European Championship was the best thing I experienced at a professional level, and what happened tonight is the biggest disappointment.”
The first European play-off finals will take place on Tuesday, when Portugal take on North Macedonia and Poland face Sweden. Wales will not be in action next week, however, as they will have to face the winner of the match between Scotland and Ukraine at a later date to book their ticket for Qatar.
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