Italy will have to compete in the 2022 Qatar World Cup play-offs after being held to goalless draw by a plucky Northern Ireland side in Belfast.
Italy needed to match Switzerland’s result to progress automatically to next year's World Cup, but the Euro 2020 winners could not break the deadlock and Switzerland beat Bulgaria 4-0, meaning the unbeaten Azzurri are forced to settle for second place in Group C on 16 points.
Northern Ireland kept Italy at bay in a tense first half where the visitors had 66 per cent possession and five shots on goal.
World Cup Qualification UEFA
Jorginho misses late penalty as Italy draw with Switzerland
The best chance fell to Giovanni Di Lorenzo in the eighth minute. He latched onto a fine lofted reverse pass from Lorenzo Insigne at the back post, but his shot looking for the top corner was acrobatically tipped over the bar by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Northern Ireland almost grabbed a winner in the 48th minute when Jamal Lewis squared the ball back for George Saville, but his close-range effort was excellently parried away by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Italy continued to enjoy plenty of the ball but they failed to produce a clear-cut goalscoring opportunity. Emerson saw his hopeful driven strike drift wide in the 80th minute before Stuart Dallas’ venomous effort from outside the box drifted past the post at the other end.
With Italy's defence becoming increasingly stretched as they pushed for a goal, substitute Conor Washington could have won it for the hosts when he skipped by Donnarumma in the final seconds of normal time, but his tame shot was cleared off the line by Leonardo Bonucci.
For Northern Ireland, it is a famous result at Windsor Park as they finish their World Cup qualifying campaign without conceding a goal at home. For the visitors, the uncertainty of the World Cup play-offs lies ahead.
TALKING POINT – Play-offs await Italy
The Italy players react to being held by Northern Ireland
Image credit: Getty Images
Italy were knocked out by Sweden in the World Cup play-offs for the 2018 World Cup and for all of the Azzurri’s success under the guidance of Roberto Mancini, this result will not go down well.
Italy were without Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, Nicolo Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Marco Verratti and Giorgio Chiellini in Belfast, but that does not mask the fact they fielded a team that should have been able to overcome the nation ranked 58 in the world.
A heady summer night at Wembley will be quickly brushed under the rug if Italy cannot produce under pressure in the World Cup play-offs in March.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland)
Italy pressured the Northern Ireland for the majority of the match, but the Leicester defender stood firm and dealt with numerous crosses into the penalty box.
A standout moment for the 33-year-old was when he excellently blocked off Nicolo Barella's surging run inside the area in the 40th minute.
8' - GREAT SAVE! Insigne's reverse pass finds Di Lorenzo free inside the box. He fires a shot on goal looking for the top corner but Peacock Farrell does a great job of tipping it away!
48' - CRUCIAL STOP! Italy have started brightly as they go in search of a goal, but hang on... N Ireland push forward and Lewis pulls the ball back for Saville but his shot is saved by Donnarumma!
81' - BIG CHANCE! Northern Ireland so nearly take the lead! Lewis' ball agonisingly rolls along the edge of the penalty box and eventually Dallas meets it, but he drills his first-time strike just past the post! That was a big chance for the hosts to win this late on!
89' - HUGE OPPORTUNITY! On the break Washington skips around Donnarumma and he simply has to put the ball in the net, but his shot is cleared off the line!
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