BELFAST (AFP) - Italy will have to get through the play-offs if they are to return to the World Cup after a goalless draw at Northern Ireland on Monday (Nov 15) allowed Switzerland to pip them on the final day of qualifying.
Roberto Mancini's European champions knew that they needed to match the Swiss' result against Bulgaria if they wanted to qualify directly for next year's tournament in Qatar.
However their uninspiring stalemate at Windsor Park and Switzerland's 4-0 win in Lucerne saw Italy give up first place and Group C's sole guaranteed World Cup spot at the last.
That leaves the Azzurri in the Nov 26 draw for the play-offs, from which they famously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a miserable aggregate defeat to Sweden.
Northern Ireland maintained their record of not conceding a goal at home in their qualifying campaign with a dogged performance in front of a passionate home crowd.
"Right now it is what it is, we struggle to score goals, we always have control of the play... It's a shame because the group should have been finished before this match," Italy coach Roberto Mancini told RAI.
However, he insisted he was confident his team would be in Qatar despite a series of underwhelming displays in qualifying since winning Euro 2020.
Italy had won their first three games in March but followed that up with four draws and a thumping of minnows Lithuania - missing a penalty in both of their draws with the Swiss.
"We missed two penalties in the two key matches, that means that we had things under our control, but if you don't create chances you're going to find yourself in difficulty," added Mancini. "I have faith, let's see in March, but we might even win it."