Portugal’s path to World Cup blocked by North Macedonia surprise package

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Portugal have been well and truly warned not to take the threat from North Macedonia lightly as they take on winners Italy in a crucial World Cup qualifying play-off on Tuesday.

The Balkan nation stunned Italy in their play-off semi-final in Palermo on Thursday, winning 1-0 thanks to a stoppage-time goal from Aleksandar Trajkovski, meaning the champions Reigning Europeans have failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portuguese side, who preceded Italy as European champions in 2016, could have prepared for the prospect of a decisive confrontation with the Azzurri, but instead North Macedonia will be visitors to the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, with the winners going to Qatar.

“At the moment, football is different. Anyone can beat anyone. Names, numbers and stats don’t matter,” veteran Portuguese midfielder Joao Moutinho warned when he was asked to face the country of two million people ranked modestly 67th in the world.

“We have to show on the pitch that we have more quality and impose our own game.”

Portugal survived a scare to beat Turkey 3-1 in the semi-final, nearly losing a two-goal lead as Burak Yilmaz missed a late penalty for the visitors before Matheus Nunes secured the hosts victory.

Fernando Santos’ side had already squandered top spot in their qualifying group by conceding at the last minute to lose 2-1 at home to Serbia in November.

For Portugal not to qualify for the World Cup would be a bit of a scandal given the quality of their ranks – Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix was only on the bench against Turkey, for example.

For Ronaldo, the all-time international top scorer at the age of 37, it will surely be his last World Cup if Portugal get there.

They have veteran defender Pepe back after a Covid-19 fight, while Joao Cancelo is also expected to return.

“We have a responsibility to go to the World Cup, which means the pressure is there no matter who we play against. We know perfectly well that we have to be in Qatar,” said Manchester City star Bernardo Silva.

Portugal, who are expected to be among the top seeds if they qualify, have not missed a World Cup since 1998, while Euro 2020 was the first major appearance in a tournament of any kind for Macedonia North.

They have already beaten Germany as well as Italy away from home this campaign, while they drew 0-0 in a friendly during their previous visit to Portugal in 2012.

“We are well on our way to confirming why we are among the top 20 teams in Europe,” said their coach, Blagoja Milevski.

– Poland and Sweden reunite –

The other World Cup qualifying play-off final in Europe on Tuesday will see Poland host Sweden in the southern Polish town of Chorzow, as the Poles seek to end a six-game losing streak against their opponents.

Poland, who finished second to England in their qualifying group, have been granted a bye for this fixture after scheduled semi-final opponents Russia were suspended from all international football until further notice after the invasion of Ukraine.

2018 World Cup quarter-finalists Sweden beat the Czech Republic 1-0 in the semi-finals thanks to a Robin Quaison goal in extra time.

These sides met at Euro 2020 last June in St Petersburg, with Sweden scoring in added time to win 3-2.

Robert Lewandowski’s brace had leveled Poland after Emil Forsberg scored twice for Sweden, but Viktor Claesson then struck the winner.

Claesson, who left Russian club Krasnodar after the Ukraine invasion, also started against the Czechs in the World Cup qualifiers.

Poland will be without striker Arkadiusz Milik after suffering a hamstring injury in Thursday’s 1-1 friendly draw in Scotland.

Ten European teams have already secured a place in Friday’s draw in Doha for the World Cup, with a total of three places still up for grabs in the play-offs.

Wales will take part in the other play-off final, but that is on hold until at least June as war led to the postponement of Ukraine’s semi-final in Scotland.

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