Football Features

World Cup 2022 qualifiers: Five things learned as North Macedonia “destroy” Italy

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:35, 24 March 2022

UEFA’s World Cup qualifying campaign is almost over but there was a lot of drama in the play-off semi-finals.

Four games took place across Europe, with European champions Italy in action against North Macedonia, who are looking to reach the World Cup for the first time in their history. Elsewhere, Portugal took on Turkey, Wales hosted Austria and Sweden faced Czech Republic.

Despite the small number of games Thursday was a night full of action and some pretty big stories…

1. Italy’s post-Euro curse continues

  • 1978: Defending European champions Czechoslovakia did not qualify for the World Cup
  • 1994: Defending European champions Denmark did not qualify for the World Cup
  • 2006: Defending European champions Greece did not qualify for the World Cup
  • 2022: Defending European champions Italy have not qualified for the World Cup

Since winning Euro 2020, Italy have been in poor form but no one expected this. The Italians have played eight games since lifting the European Championship trophy at Wembley last July, managing just two wins.

In their homecoming after winning the Euros, Italy were held to a 1-1 draw by Bulgaria and they followed that up with a stalemate against Switzerland, which put their automatic World Cup qualification hopes in doubt. A 5-0 thrashing of Lithuania steadied the ship but they suffered their first post-Euros defeat in the Uefa Nations League semi-final against Spain.

Another win over Belgium to secure third place at the Nations League should have boosted Italy for the final two games of their World Cup qualifying campaign but again they stumbled to two draws. Another draw against Switzerland and a stalemate with Northern Ireland saw Italy finish second in Group C and they were given a tough route to the World Cup, with a potential final against Portugal expected.

But they couldn’t even get there, struggling against North Macedonia, hitting the target with just five of their 32 shots — 16 of which were inside the area and losing to Aleksandar Trajkovski’s late strike.

Nevertheless, the faith remains in Roberto Mancini, with Giorgio Chiellini saying after the game: “There is great disappointment. We played a good game, we missed the goal.

“I’m proud of my teammates. We are destroyed. I hope the future is still with Mr. Mancini.”

READ MORE: Uefa World Cup qualifying state of play

2. Gareth Bale puts down his marker

Wales haven’t been at the World Cup since 1958, their only previous appearance at the tournament, but they are now just one win away.

It was a night to remember for those in attendance at Cardiff, with Gareth Bale stepping up for the big occasion as he has so many times in the past. A quintessential Bale performance for Wales, the Real Madrid forward opened the scoring with a delicious free-kick, sent into the top right top corner.

He wasn’t done there, getting Wales’ second with a fine finish following a set piece, getting the better of Real Madrid teammate David Alaba. Remember, this is a Bale that has played a grand total of 267 minutes for his club this season.

Bale understandably tired later in the game, given his lack of playing time, but the damage on Austria was done and a message sent, whether he wanted to send it or not.

The Welshman has come under fire from the Spanish media recently, with some labelling him a parasite for staying at Real Madrid and he appeared to target them in celebrating his first goal – screaming ‘suck that’ into the camera.

And after the game, Bale had some more scathing words.

“I don’t need to send a message,” he told Sky Sports.

“I don’t need to send anything, it’s a waste of my time, it’s disgusting and they should also be ashamed of themselves. I’m not fussed.”

Wales won’t know their World Cup fate until June, facing either Scotland or Ukraine in the postponed final of their play-off path.

3. Otavio inspires hard-fought Portugal win

On the other side of Italy and North Macedonia’s play-off group were Portugal and Turkey, two teams that will have been cursing their luck in the draw.

While Portugal were the favourites going into the game, Turkey were not a side to be taken lightly, performing well in World Cup qualifying and only just finishing behind Netherlands.

Many expected the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes to dominate for Portugal but it was Otavio, making just his third appearance, who stole the show. The Porto winger was excellent on the left of Portugal’s attacking trio, scoring a goal and providing an assist in the 3-1 win, opening the scoring and then setting up Diogo Jota.

Overall, Otavio had 55 touches of the ball, made three tackles and won four fouls on top of his goal involvements and two chances created, putting in a shift at both ends of the pitch.

He’ll be looking to have a similar impact against North Macedonia in the final next week.

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4. North Macedonia on the brink of history

Let’s not forget about North Macedonia when discussing Italy’s defeat. While it was a smash-and-grab kind of performance and result, they had to be extremely focussed and well-disciplined to even get to the 90th minute without conceding.

It was an Italian onslaught with their 32 shots and only five hitting the target was partly as a result of North Macedonia’s heroic blocking. One particular moment in the second half summed up North Macedonia’s defending when Ezgjan Alioski got his foot in front of a shot just yards in front of his own goal when Italy looked certain to take the lead.

Thanks to efforts like that, when North Macedonia did get themselves up the pitch to take their fourth and final shot on target and breached Gianluigi Donnarumma’s net, it was the match winner and not just a consolation. But there will be no time for North Macedonia to truly celebrate as they are now just one game away from history.

It’s been an excellent 12 months for North Macedonia, who reached the European Championships for the first time last summer and beat Germany in World Cup qualifying. Is there room for one more big achievement and a first World Cup?

5. Anthony Elanga debuts as Sweden set up date with Poland

The final game of the night was an extremely close one and went all the way to extra-time. Sweden, who finished second in Group B behind Spain, were pit against Czech Republic who had earned their play-off spot as a result of their Uefa Nations League finish.

On paper, Sweden were the higher ranked team and in the end it was they who made it into the final, thanks to Robin Quaison’s goal in the 110th minute after a lovely one-two with Alexander Isak.

They will now face Poland for the chance to reach the World Cup, and Anthony Elanga will no doubt be hoping to have an impact after coming on the final few minutes – his senior Swedish debut.

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