Italy Out of World Cup Qualifiers After Loss To North Macedonia
Reigning champions of Europe after their recent EURO 2020 win, Italy’s loss to North Macedonia on the opening day of the March break (24th) means that they are no longer in the running for a place at the World Cup. With the only score of the night coming in the dying minutes of the match, North Macedonia won the game and knocked a stunned Italy out of the European World Cup playoffs.
Though injuries and illness beset the Italians, the team began the night at home in Palermo confident that they could win. They dominated possession in both halves of the game and aimed at the sticks no less than thirty-two times. However, despite their best efforts, they couldn't find the back of the net. The 0-0 result pushed the match into stoppage time, and it was here that disaster struck. Perversely, former Palermo player Aleksander Trajkovski was the agent of doom for the Italians. The North Macedonian winger broke through Italy's defence in the 92nd minute of the game and fired home the winner past the Azzurri keeper from 25 yards out. The Italians rallied to find an equaliser but were thwarted in their efforts. The loss means that Italy will be missing the World Cup for the second consecutive time. If they qualify on March 29th, North Macedonia will be attending the tournament for the first time in their history.
North Macedonia will play Portugal in the final of the playoffs round.
Meanwhile, Poland's game on March 24th against fellow playoff opponent Russia was cancelled by FIFA in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Poland, who had refused to play Russia if they had not been issued an indefinite ban from competitive football, had been given a 'bye' for this tournament stage and will only compete in the final on March 29th.
Similarly, the playoff match on the 24th between Scotland and Ukraine was postponed due to the war. If Ukraine can field a team, FIFA has agreed to reschedule the game during the June break.
Portugal, who was nudged out of the automatic qualifiers by Serbia in November 2021, had a lot riding on their match against Turkey. Having qualified on the last five consecutive occasions, the team will be hoping to join the tournament for the sixth successive time and finish higher than their highest position - 3rd in 1966 and 4th in 2006. Teammate Christiano Ronaldo, and undisputedly one of the world's greatest footballers, will also be hoping to lift the World Cup before he bows out of the game and into retirement. On the night, the Portuguese looked comfortable in the first half, having scored twice before the interval. FC Porto star Otavio opened the scoring in the first 25 off of a rebounded shot, then Diogo Jota doubled the lead for the Portuguese with a powerful header to the back of the net in the 42nd. The second half of the game proved to be a more tense affair when Turkey's Burak Yilmaz pulled one back in the 65th. A short while later, he threatened to score the equaliser off of a penalty kick. Fortunately for the Portuguese, the ball went over the bar. Matheus Nunes secured Portugal's victory with a stoppage-time shot, finishing the game 3-1.
Portugal now needs to pit their skills against North Macedonia on the 29th for a place in Qatar this winter.
Wales took on Austria in its first game of the window and, with a pretty comprehensive performance, took the victory 2-1. Wales' Gareth Bale opened the scoring in the 25th minute of the game with a strike to the top corner of Austria's net. He scored a brace just over twenty minutes later to double the lead. Austria pulled one back in the 64th. However, Wales battened the hatches, keeping their defences tight to secure their result and a place in the playoff final.
Wales will play the winner of the Scotland versus Ukraine match if it goes ahead in June.
In the final match of the evening, Sweden went head-to-head against the Czech Republic. After a very tight match, the game's 90 minutes ended with a goalless result. The teams played into extra time, both gunning for a win. But after ten minutes, Sweden pulled off the victory with a strike to the back of the net from Robin Quaison.
Sweden now heads to the final on the 29th against Poland.
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