Winning was the only thing that mattered tonight at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome as Italy faced their recent times nemesis North Macedonia in the Euro 2024 Qualifiers. And the Azzurri did win, putting five past the North Macedonians, but also conceded two to Blagoja Milevski’s side right when it seemed that they had got the job done.
Matteo Darmian opened the scoring for Italy, then Federico Chiesa bagged a fantastic brace towards the end of the first half. The Azzurri went for the break with a comfortable three-goal cushion as it seemed all easy for Luciano Spalletti’s side. North Macedonia did not record a single shot on target in the first period.
And still, Italy were taken aback as substitute Jani Atanasov headed the ball home early after the restart. A long-range strike on 74 minutes by Atanasov again resulted in Francesco Acerbi deflecting the ball into his own net, making it 2-3 and conjuring the nightmare of the World Cup 2022 Qualifiers Playoff lost to North Macedonia in March 2022.
Italy pulled themselves back after a few minutes of disorientation and finished the job with goals from Giacomo Raspadori and Stephan El Shaarawy.
Tonight’s win puts them in a comfortable spot ahead of the last Qualifiers game to be played on Monday in Leverkusen against Ukraine. One draw will be enough for the Azzurri to book their ticket to the Euro 2024 but, considering the risks they run tonight as they almost let the Balkans get back in the game, Spalletti and his boys will need to keep their guard up.
The Tuscan gaffer deployed his Azzurri in a usual 4-3-3 fashion, featuring Domenico Berardi and Federico Chiesa on the wings to support central striker Giacomo Raspadori. Matteo Darmian took Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s place at right back as the Napoli man was serving a one-match ban, with Federico Dimarco marshaling the other flank. Federico Gatti an Francesco Acerbi were the center backs.
At midfield, Jorginho made his return to the Nazionale as he played alongside Nicoló Barella and Giacomo Bonaventura.
The first half was an Italian monologue. Chiesa was the most active from the get go despite suffering an early scare as he was brutally tackled by a Macedonian defender. The Juventus man was sidelined for a couple of minutes, but promptly showed his skills as soon as he got back on the pitch, calling goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski to his first save of the night.
Raspadori had one goal disallowed on grounds of offside on 13 minutes but that was just the prelude to Italy’s opener that came four minutes later. From a corner kick taken by the Napoli striker, Darmian was faster than the North Macedonian backline at the far post as he clinically headed the ball into the back of the net. It was the second goal for Italy for the Inter full back, and it came more than eight years after his first winning strike.
The lead boosted the Azzurri‘s morale as both Chiesa and Dimarco had chances to round up the scoring. But Italy’s golden chance came on 38 minutes, when Federico Gatti’s header sent the ball crashing into Nikola Serafimov’s open arm, prompting the referee to point to the penalty spot.
In his pre-match remarks, Jorginho had claimed he would be willing to take a penalty if the chance arose and he stayed true to his word. However, the Arsenal midfielder’s conversion attempt was horrific and Dimitrievski had no problems to defuse the challenge. It was the third penalty in a row missed by Jorginho when playing for Italy.
But the Italian Brazilian redeemed himself early after that, with a fine exchange with Barella to pick Federico Chiesa right on the edge of the box. Chiesa’s right foot screamer went into the bottom left corner of the net, making it 2-0 for Italy. The Juventus winger was on fire and, just two minutes later, went for a shot that found Jovan Manev’s unlucky deflection, leaving no chance to the Balkan goalkeeper.
Spalletti made no changes after the restart, while the North Macedonian coach Milevski changed three of his men. It was one of his substitutes, Cracovia midfielder Atanasov, to spark new life into a match that seemed done and dusted for the Azzurri with a header on 52 minutes.
Italy kept control of the operations and had more chances to widen the gap again but appeared more careless now. And so, when Atanasov found Acerbi’s deflection from a long-range shot to score North Macedonia’s second, Italy’s worst nightmares reappeared.
The Azzurri‘s tension lasted until the 81st minute, when Raspadori found the winning strike with a sharp diagonal shot into the bottom right corner of Dimitrievski’s net. The fifth goal came during stoppage time, courtesy of substitute El Shaarawy’s conclusion, right after Gianluca Scamacca had also come close to making it to the scoresheet with a spectacular lob shot.
It ended 5-2 and perhaps the Azzurri could have scored a few more, but – aside from their seven-minute madness between Atanasov’s second goal and Raspadori’s winning strike – they could be happy with just getting the W they needed to be able to face Ukraine from an advantage position. Oh and, of course, with finally beating North Macedonia.
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