MILAN (AP) — With Italy’s worst soccer moment on many people’s minds, coach Roberto Mancini is not thinking about the unthinkable but about winning the World Cup in Qatar.
Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament. Missing two straight World Cups would be an unprecedented low point for the four-time champion, especially less than a year after winning the European Championship.
And, just like for the 2018 World Cup, it has to endure the playoffs. Italy faces North Macedonia in Palermo, Sicily, on Thursday, with the winner playing either Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the tournament in Qatar later this year.
“Our aim is to win the World Cup. In order to do so, we need to win these two games,” Mancini said. “It’s only others thinking about scenario B, the negative outcome. I’m thinking only of scenario A. And let’s hope it’s A.
“We have to be positive because we are talking about soccer and especially because we can draw from solid foundations.”
Italy started the qualifiers with three straight wins but then began to stumble and a disappointing draw at home to Bulgaria, less than two months after winning Euro 2020, saw Mancini’s team lose its perfect start to World Cup qualifying.
A draw in Northern Ireland in the final round saw Switzerland beat the Azzurri to the top spot in their group and consign them to the prospect of reliving their playoff nightmare.
“We shouldn’t be here but soccer is also made up of these things,” Mancini said. “We are human, it can happen and certain feelings can remain, it’s only natural to think about last time. But the feelings from July are much more recent, we need to start from there.
“I am confident because I know I have good players who built a victory from nothing, that of the European Championship, which nobody believed in. And it was fully deserved. Confidence has to start from that: it won’t guarantee us going to the World Cup but it can only be a solid base, knowing that we have a squad with important qualities.”
However, Italy will not be able to draw on its most solid of foundations as the defense that starred in its Euro 2020 success will have to be changed. Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni Di Lorenzo are out injured and veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are both a doubt for the first match at least.
But it has its core, triumphant midfield of Marco Verratti, Nicolò Barella and Jorginho.
Verratti missed out on the second leg of the playoff against Sweden in November 2017 through suspension. And, while the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder admits the pain of failing to qualify is still fresh in the players’ minds, he says that needs to drive them on to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“There’s a different atmosphere than there was for that Sweden game,” the 29-year-old Verratti said. “The tough times stay with you forever and certain defeats teach you to give that little bit extra.
“We’re used to playing with this sort of pressure and we know how important this is. We cannot miss out on the World Cup. We just need to work hard, give it everything and do what needs to be done. The opposition will have the game of their lives, so we need to do the same.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports