A look at the semi-finals of the World Cup qualifiers in Europe on Thursday:
ITALY v NORTH MACEDONIA
Italy will have a makeshift defense as they attempt to banish the ghosts of their playoff loss to Sweden in 2017. That defeat saw the Azzurri fail to qualify for the 2018 tournament, one of the darkest in the history of Italian football. Missing two consecutive World Cups would be an unprecedented low for the four-time champion, especially less than a year after winning the European Championship. Italy won’t be able to tap into their strongest foundations as the defense that played into their success at Euro 2020 will need to be changed. Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni Di Lorenzo are injured and veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are both doubts for the game in Palermo, Sicily. The winner will face either Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal or Turkey for a place at the tournament in Qatar later this year. North Macedonia played their first major Euro 2020 tournament but lost all three of their group matches. However, they got arguably their best ever result when they beat Germany in qualifying last March. North Macedonia also held Italy 1-1 in Turin in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Italy needed two late goals from Ciro Immobile to win the opener 3-2.
PORTUGAL v TURKEY
A Portugal loss at home to Turkey could mean Cristiano Ronaldo will never play in the football showcase again. Ronaldo would be 41 at the time of the next World Cup. He is trying to qualify for his 10th consecutive major tournament and is the only player to have scored at least once in the finals of nine top-level tournaments in a row. The star striker is set to start on Thursday but coach Fernando Santos will have a depleted defense for the decisive game at Porto as the two regular starting centre-backs will not be available. Veteran Pepe is out after testing positive for COVID-19, while Rúben Dias is injured. Santos is also missing other players through injuries. It could be the end of the line for Santos with Portugal if the national team doesn’t progress. He has been at the helm since 2014, winning the 2016 European Championship.
SWEDEN vs CZECH REPUBLIC
Both teams will be without their best forwards in Stockholm as they seek a place in Tuesday’s playoff final against Poland, who were exempted following Russia’s exclusion following their invasion of Ukraine. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended for Sweden while Patrick Schick has been ruled out for the Czechs with a calf injury. Czech coach Jaroslav Šilhavý is without his entire first-choice defense from last year’s European Championship, including right-back Vladimír Coufal, who has just undergone groin surgery. As Sweden reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup, the Czechs are looking to qualify for the first time since 2006.
WALES v AUSTRIA
Austria haven’t been to the World Cup since 1998. For Wales, the wait is much, much longer – 40 years earlier, in fact. Both countries are therefore looking to make up for lost time when they meet at the Cardiff City Stadium for the right to face either Scotland or Ukraine in the playoff final in their group. That won’t happen until June, at the earliest, as the Scotland-Ukraine game has been postponed until then due to the war in Ukraine. Gareth Bale is set to play for Wales despite having limited playing time at Real Madrid this season and is looking to lead his country to a showpiece where Welsh greats like Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes have never played. Wales are unbeaten in their last 16 games. home matches.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports