Grounded Turkey looks to surprise Portugal in World Cup qualifiers playoff

The Turkish national football team, which boasts a great mix of youth and experience, will remain grounded as it faces Portugal in the World Cup qualifiers playoff in Porto Thursday.

Turkey coach Stefan Kuntz has named Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal favorite but believes that his team can spring an upset.

Kuntz told Wednesday’s edition of Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung paper that “we will have a good match plan and we will be uncomfortable.”

“It is important to accept their strength but also to expose their weaknesses. Portugal’s coach knows what we are capable of. And we know that as well,” the German Kuntz said.

“These matches are not only about quality but also about team spirit, mental strength, resilience, and willpower.”

Kuntz, who led Germany to under-21 Euro titles in 2017 and 2021, took the Turkey job in autumn and led it into the playoffs.

The Turkish team features veterans like Burak Yılmaz, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Caner Erkin, young but experienced campaigners like Çağlar Söyüncü, Cengiz Ünder, Merih Demiral and young blood like Kerem Aktürkoğlu.

The team does not have any injury or suspension concerns either.

So far, under the German coach, Turkey has racked up three wins and one draw in four matches while scoring 11 goals and conceding three.

Portugal, on the other hand, will be without two first-choice center backs. Manchester City’s Ruben Dias succumbed to injury before 39-year-old veteran Pepe tested positive for coronavirus.

It will also be without goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, defender Nelson Semedo and midfielders Renato Sanches and Ruben Neves because of injuries, while defender Joao Cancelo is out because of a suspension.

Ronaldo’s last chance

Portugal skipper Ronaldo will be 41 come 2026, so Qatar surely represents his last chance to win the World Cup. Missing out altogether is unthinkable for the all-time top scorer in international football with 115 goals.

“We know the road will not be easy and we have full respect for our opponents, who share the same objective as us. But together we will fight to take Portugal where we belong,” Ronaldo posted on Instagram this week.

The winner of the game advances into another play-off next week against Italy or North Macedonia for a place at the November 21-December 18 finals in Qatar.

Italy on knife’s edge

Meanwhile, European Champion Italy faces North Macedonia in the other playoff semifinal.

Failure to reach this year’s World Cup would be a catastrophe for the Azzurri, who had gone to every finals since 1958 until missing out in 2018 when they lost a playoff to Sweden.

It would be all the more remarkable given that it bounced back from that under Roberto Mancini to win Euro 2020 while on a world record 37-game unbeaten run.

Yet four draws in its last five World Cup qualifiers last autumn saw it finish second in its group to Switzerland, and now it must come through these two one-off ties to secure a place in the April 1 draw in Doha.

“Our goal is to win the World Cup, and to win the World Cup we have to win these two matches. There’s nothing else to say,” Mancini said on Monday.

Italy hosts North Macedonia in Palermo, and it will know not to take the Balkan nation of two million people lightly.

After all, they beat Germany away in qualifying last year before appearing at their first major tournament at Euro 2020, and they also held Italy to a damaging draw in Turin in qualifying for the last World Cup.

“We are not going to Italy as tourists, but to outplay (them) and to win,” said coach Bobi Milevski, who is aiming to take North Macedonia – born in 1991 out of the break-up of Yugoslavia – to its first World Cup.

Russia excluded, Ukraine game postponed

Three World Cup berths from Europe remain up for grabs, with 10 teams led by holders France having already qualified.

The play-offs were meant to feature 12 teams, split into three separate paths, but they have been impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with both of those countries initially due to take part.

Hosts of the 2018 World Cup, Russia were excluded after being suspended by FIFA and UEFA until further notice.

That meant Poland getting a walkover to a final against either 2018 quarter-finalists Sweden or the Czech Republic, who meet in Solna on Thursday.

Ukraine was due to face Scotland in Glasgow, but that match has been postponed until June.

Therefore, whoever wins Thursday’s clash between Wales and Austria in Cardiff will also have to wait until June for their play-off final.

Wales have impressed at the last two European Championships but has not been to the World Cup since 1958.

They made the playoffs after finishing second in their qualifying group behind the world’s top-ranked side Belgium.

“It’s massive. It’s been a long wait, a long time since Wales qualified for a World Cup,” Neco Williams, currently on loan at Fulham from Liverpool, told the BBC.

Wales coach Robert Page is hoping Gareth Bale can play although the Real Madrid man missed his club’s defeat against Barcelona at the weekend reportedly due to illness.

He has only played five times for Madrid this season, and just twice since August.

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