No, this is not happening again. Please wake us up.
Italy will miss the World Cup for the second edition in a row as they lost to North Macedonia at the Renzo Barbera Stadium in Palermo. The Azzurri succumbed to a late goal from Aleksandar Trajkovski, a player who spent four glorious seasons playing right in Palermo – which adds insult to injury.
The Balkan will thus face Portugal on Tuesday in the final of this Playoff pool to grab a ticket to the Qatari world showdown.
Italy, on the other hand, will watch the World Cup from home, once again. But while losing to Sweden four years ago had come at the end of a declining cycle, this time Roberto Mancini’s band missed the train despite wearing the badge of European Champions.
In less than nine months, Italy went from clinching the European throne to the shame of a second World Cup elimination in a row. How could this happen?
There will be time for some painful post-mortem analysis in the coming days, which will start from remembering how Italy basically threw away the first place in a Qualifiers group that they were dominating.
They should not have been here tonight, battling for their World Cup qualification in a do-or-die game. But since they were, they should have simply got their job done against a side that sits 60 positions below them in the FIFA Ranking. And, they did not.
Instead, the Azzurri paid again for their chronic inefficiency upfront, failing to find the back of the net despite an absolute domination. They found themselves unprepared as the Balkans shot on target for the very first time of their incredible night only after 92 minutes of play.
And so, tonight’s tragedy will rightfully get a place in Italy’s Hall of Shame, a gallery of horrors featuring such historical setbacks as the ones against North Korea in 1966, Zambia in 1988, or Sweden in 2017. And now, North Macedonia in 2022.
A Fruitless Domination and a Late Punishment
Roberto Mancini had quite a few problems in defense, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Leonardo Bonucci unavailable due to injuries while Giorgio Chiellini was only fit for the bench. As Alessandro Florenzi and Emerson Palmieri marshalled the two flanks, Gianluca Mancini and Alessandro Bastoni formed an unprecedented center back duo.
The rest of the team, though, was the same that only nine months earlier had lifted the Euro Cup trophy with Nicolò Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti in midfield and a three-man front line featuring Domenico Berardi, Ciro Immobile, and Lorenzo Insigne.
Among the North Macedonians lines, the Italians could be happy with Goran Pandev having closed his international career and Napoli’s Elif Elmas missing the game as he was serving a one-match ban.
The game followed the expected pattern as the North Macedonians tried to limit the damage while Italy’s approach was thundering. However, the Azzurri lacked precision and their first real shot on target only came after half an hour.
Italy’s first chance was a kind gift from the Balkans’ goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski who served Berardi with a suicidal pass that put the Sassuolo striker in condition to shot from close range. Berardi’s conclusion, though, was weak and left the keeper a chance to recover from his mistake.
Insigne was the next to test Dimitrieski with a tricky conclusion from outside the box which the Macedonian shot-stopper somehow managed to neutralize.
The North Macedonians’ backline appeared shaky and careless. It was a weak point that Mancini’s band did not hesitate to exploit but the Azzurri always seemed to miss the right spark to find the back of the net.
At half time, the scorecard still read nil-nil despite Italy’s dominance. However, the Balkans did manage to make themselves dangerous with a Darko Churlinov counterattack that Florenzi defused with a spectacular defensive tackle.
Berardi was the most positive among the Azzurri lines. Soon after the restart, he produced three more shooting attempts, but none of them was on target.
As the minutes went by and the score didn’t change, North Macedonia gained courage while the Azzurri got frustrated. Their concerns grew and their exchanges became less effective. Berardi continued to fight like a lion but this was just not his night.
Roberto Mancini’s first move was sending in Giacomo Raspadori, who replaced a disappointing Insigne on 63 minutes. He then added Sandro Tonali for Barella and Lorenzo Pellegrini for Immobile, whose performance with the Azzurri was once again impalpable.
Giorgio Chiellini eventually had to step in as Gianluca Mancini picked up an injury, then the time also came for Joao Pedro, who thus made his debut with Italy.
The Cagliari forward, though, didn’t have time to make an impact as disaster struck with 92 minutes on the clock. It was a known face in Italy, former Palermo striker Trajkovski, to score the most important goal in the history of his side, finding the back of the net with a brilliant right foot shot from outside the box.
Gianluigi Donnarumma was beaten, the whole North Macedonian squad run wildly into the pitch to celebrate (and, can you blame them?). The night at the Renzo Barbera favored the 1600 brave supporters who traveled from the Balkans to witness their side’s miracle.
For Italy, it’s a time for sorrow and for soul searching again.
March 24, 2021 – World Cup 2022 European Play-Off Semi Finals
ITALY – NORTH MACEDONIA 0-1
SCORERS: 92′ Trajkovski
|ITALY (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Florenzi, Mancini (89′ Chiellini), Bastoni, Emerson; Barella (76′ Tonali), Jorginho, Verratti; Berardi (89′ Joao Pedro), Immobile (76′ Pellegrini), Insigne (64′ Raspadori) (Sirigu, Cragno, De Sciglio, Cristante, Pessina, Acerbi, Politano) Coach: R. Mancini
|NORTH MACEDONIA (4-4-2): Dimitrievski; S. Ristovski, Velkovski (86′ Ristevski), Musliu, Alioski; Nikolov (59′ Ashkovski), Ademi (59′ Spirovski), Bardhi, Churlinov; M. Ristovski (71′ Miovski), Trajkovski (Naumovski, Siskovski, Todoroski, David Babunski, Serafimov, Ethemi, Babunski, Atanasov) Coach: Milevski
REFEREE: Turpin (France)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Spirovski (M); Added Time: 1st Half: 1′, 2nd Half: 5′