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Five key talking points from the weekend’s international action

Michael O’Neill’s future and Italy on the brink

It was an action-packed few days of international football across the globe this weekend.

England’s young lions staked their claim for a place in Russia next year, while Northern Ireland narrowly missed out against Switzerland.

Looking at those storylines and more, the Coral News Team cast their eye over a hectic weekend of action…

Could Italy really miss out?

Italy haven’t missed a World Cup since 1958. However, following a 1-0 first-leg defeat to Sweden on Friday, Gian Piero Ventura’s men stand on the brink.

A positive result is required in Milan this evening if the Azzurri are to have any chance of making it to Russia next summer. If that result is not forthcoming, then the four-time winners will be missing from the tournament for the first time since Sweden hosted the competition 59 years ago.

Young Lions take their chance

The decision to start Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Jordan Pickford raised eyebrows at Wembley on Friday night. But after a pulsating 90 minutes under the Wembley arch, Gareth Southgate’s faith in youth was rewarded.

Loftus-Cheek was handed the man-of-the-match award for his sensational midfield display. Pickford went some way to displacing Joe Hart as England’s number one. And while Abraham failed to shine under the lights, there are sure to be more chances for a youngster who was plying his trade in the Championship last season.

It all bodes well for Southgate, who could look increasingly to youth ahead of next summer’s tournament in Russia.

What next for Michael O’Neill?

Michael O’Neill looked a beaten man on the St. Jakob-Park pitch yesterday evening. His Northern Ireland side gave it their all against the Swiss but were ultimately undone by a single refereeing decision in the first-leg at Windsor Park.

His demeanour hinted that he felt as though he’d taken this Northern Ireland side as far as it can go. And that could mean a new challenge for the Portadown native.

Scotland are known to covet the 48-year-old. So too the United States. A move to the Premier League cannot be ruled out either. O’Neill may have two years left to run on his contract with the Northern Irish FA, but could an offer from elsewhere tempt him away? Only time will tell.

Changing of the guard in Africa

Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon have all been staple ingredients of recent World Cup tournaments. But in Russia next year, none of that trio will be present.

Instead, representing Africa will be Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal and Egypt. While Nigeria will be featuring in their sixth tournament, the rest of that quintet will be making an appearance at football’s showpiece event for the first time in a number of years.

Tunisia and Senegal haven’t qualified since 2006 and 2002 respectively. Meanwhile, Morocco and Egypt have to go back to 1998 and 1990 since their last World Cup participation. It represents a changing of the guard in Africa and some exciting new names at next year’s showpiece event.

New Zealand-Peru and Australia-Honduras finely poised

Play-off games for World Cup qualification are usually tight. And so it proved over the weekend, with New Zealand v Peru and Honduras v Australia both ending 0-0.

It means the second-leg of both matches should prove to be tight and tense affairs. Peru and Australia will have home advantage going into the return-leg of either tie. And that could be crucial as the pair aim to reach next summer’s tournament.

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