It’s crunch time in UEFA 2024 European Championship qualifying as reigning European champions Italy face a familiar task. Friday’s encounter against North Macedonia at the Stadio Olimpico brings back unpleasant memories.
The last time Italy had to beat North Macedonia to make it to a major international tournament, it didn’t end well for them. The Balkans minnows stunned Gli Azzurri 1-0 in the 2022 World Cup qualifying playoffs, condemning the four-time world champions to back-to-back failed attempts to reach the finals for the first time in the nation’s history.
Yet, the landscape is slightly different this time. The bottom line is the same for Italy. Anything other than three points against the already-eliminated North Macedonians would wrestle qualification control out of their hands. Even though their visitors have nothing but pride left to play for, the Italians cannot take anything for granted.
Scudetto-winning manager Luciano Spalletti may not fancy meeting the Lynxes in this pivotal fixture. Blagoja Milevski’s side spoiled his touchline debut in September, holding Italy to a 1-1 draw in Skopje. The North Macedonians followed up their result with a 2-0 home win over Mediterranean minnows Malta before slumping to an identical defeat to Ukraine in their last Euro 2024 qualifier.
As a team with nothing to lose, North Macedonia may not be an idle threat, one Italy cannot afford to take lightly.
Italy started this round three points adrift of Group C runners-up Ukraine. But with a game in hand and a superior H2H record, a potential triumph in this contest would put them in control of their qualification quest going into the ‘make or break’ qualifying finale against the Ukrainians. On that basis, there’s no margin for error.
Spalleti’s men have recovered from a 2-1 loss to England in their opening Euro 2024 home qualifier with back-to-back wins over Ukraine and Malta. Italy scored multiple goals in both matches, a feat they’ve failed to achieve across their last three encounters against North Macedonia. Maybe it’s time to change the narrative.
Player to Watch: Federico Chiesa
It’s his time to shine. After skipping the last international break due to injury, the Juventus star must assume the attacking reins to increase Italy’s chances of avoiding another fiasco against the Lynxes.
North Macedonia have traveled poorly since September 2022, losing four of their five away internationals without scoring, except for a 2-0 victory against Malta. It couples with an alarming dearth of goals more recently, where Milevski’s men have only tallied three across four games in the qualifying cycle, barring two wins against whipping boys Malta.
Despite conceding 13 in that run of matches, only one came against Italy, supporting the hypothesis the sight of blue inspires the best in them. A 3-1 friendly win over Armenia in the build-up to this trip can only strengthen their bid to uphold their impressive three-game unbeaten streak against Italy (W1, D2).
Player to Watch: Stole Dimitrievski
He’s one of those talismanic goalkeepers who only show up for high-profile games. Since fending off Italy last year, he has gone 11 international appearances without a clean sheet. But his stunning display earlier this month saw Rayo Vallecano hold Real Madrid to a 0-0 draw.
Unlike that game in Skopje, Italy can rely on in-form Juventus forward Federico Chiesa and long-serving Sassuolo winger Domenico Berardi to add to Spalletti’s firepower. Arsenal playmaker Jorginho has returned to the fold after a long-term absence, while Monza sensation Andrea Colpani has received his first international call-up.
As for North Macedonia, Napoli star Elif Elmas will have another opportunity to upset his former manager. Enis Bardhi, who scored a superb free-kick to draw his side level in the reverse fixture, will require special attention, as will seasoned international campaigner Aleksandar Trajkovski.
Italy vs North Macedonia Potential Lineups
Italy (4-3-3): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Gianluca Mancini, Federico Gatti, Federico Dimarco; Nicolo Barella, Bryan Cristante, Jorginho; Matteo Politano, Federico Chiesa, Domenico Berardi.
North Macedonia (5-2-1-2): Stole Dimitrievski; Stefan Ashkovski, Darko Velkovski, Visar Musliu, Gjoko Zajkov, Ezgjan Alioski; Arijan Ademi, Enis Bardhi; Elif Elmas; Aleksandar Trajkovski, Milan Ristovski.
Italy vs North Macedonia Prediction
Italy must exorcise the ghosts of past results against North Macedonia. Otherwise, they could lose a chance to defend the title next summer. That would be a national catastrophe, but since lightning never strikes the same place twice, Spalletti’s side should have this wrapped up.
Prediction: Italy Win
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