(Australian Associated Press)
The challenge of World Cup qualifying was laid bare on Tuesday morning when the worst nightmares of Italian football were realised in Milan.
On the eve of Australia’s do-or-die clash with Honduras, four-time champions Italy lost their World Cup playoff with Sweden.
The Azzurri were denied by a stoic Swedish side, unable to score a goal at home after losing the first leg 1-0 in Solna.
Given scoring goals at home is the same task facing Australia after a 0-0 draw in the away leg last Saturday in San Pedro Sula, Italy’s demise is likely to heighten the senses in the Socceroos camp.
In a qualifying process that has already produced a number of boilovers, this was the biggest by far.
Italy are a staple of the global tournament, an ever-present and, usually, a force to be reckoned with.
Since 1934, Italy have only missed one World Cup, coincidentally, in 1958 in the Sweden-hosted event.
Despite failing to get out of their group at the past two editions, they were champions in 2006 and are generally viewed as perennial contenders.
But for the 2018 event, they were cruelled by a tough qualifying draw which pitted them with Spain, leading to a second-placed group finish.
Sweden’s backs-to-the-wall playoff effort ended Italy’s World Cup run, returning Janne Andersson’s side to the showpiece tournament for the first time in 12 years.
Italy join the Netherlands, South American champions Chile and African champions Cameroon as powerhouse countries that won’t be appearing in Russia.
Australia will be the third continental champion to miss out unless they get past Honduras at ANZ Stadium.
But should the Socceroos win through, they’ll be in elite company as one of just 12 nations to have participated at the past four events.
Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, South Korea, Mexico, Japan, England, France, Portugal, Switzerland and — possibly — Australia have been at each tournament since Germany 2006.
COUNTRIES THAT WON’T BE AT THE 2018 WORLD CUP
Italy – Four-time champions, ranked world No.15
Netherlands – Runners-up in 2010, third in 2014, ranked world No.20
Chile – Back-to-back South American champions and world No.9
Cameroon – Seven-time qualifiers and reigning African champions
Cote D’Ivoire – Two-time African champions and had qualified for past three World Cups
South Africa – 2010 World Cup hosts and three-time qualifiers
US – Global heavyweights who haven’t missed a World Cup since 1986
China – World’s most populous country with huge investment in soccer
Qatar – Will host in 2022 without ever having played at a finals tournament
STILL TO PLAY:
Republic of Ireland v Denmark, Australia v Honduras, Peru v New Zealand.