UEFA World Cup qualifying: Spain, Italy meet in massive group stage tilt

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Something about Spain and Italy being drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group doesn’t feel right.

Yet if there’s a bonus to the UEFA draw, it’s knowing that two world superpowers will stage a pair of critical WCQ matches with the intensity of a final.

While two nations from each group remain alive after group play, only one gets an automatic berth in Russia 2018. The other faces the “anything goes” nature of a home-and-home tie with another second-place finisher for the right to go to the 2018 World Cup.

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Thursday brings us the first of those, as the Italians host Spain at Juventus Stadium in Turin. Their rivalry is splendid, and we can easily recall the 2-0 win by Italy in the EURO Round of 16 in June.

The Italians may had a start to uncapped AC Milan center back Alessio Romagnoli, the 21-year-old who may be the future of the team’s defense but would be deputizing for Giorgio Chiellini next to, theoretically, Leonardo Bonucci.

That could mean bodying up on Diego Costa or sticking with Alvaro Morata, though the Italians have more experience with the latter thanks to the Real Madrid man’s loan to Juventus last season.

The return leg is not until Sept. 2, 2017, so a loser could be staring at the result for almost a full year. And if finishing second feels like little risk to you, just talk to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo. Those two world stars squared off in a second-place playoff knowing one of the world’s most dynamic talents wouldn’t get to go to a World Cup.

Thursday’s UEFA World Cup qualifiers
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Austria vs. Wales
Moldova vs. Serbia
Ireland vs. Georgia
Italy vs. Spain
Liechtenstein vs. Albania
Macedonia vs. Israel
Iceland vs. Finland
Kosovo vs. Croatia
Turkey vs. Ukraine