Following the disappointing 0:0 draw versus Armenia on Thursday, Macedonia returns to action with a quick turnaround on Sunday when they face Iceland on the road in the 5th Round of the UEFA Group J 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
Iceland’s NT is in a period of transition. Their golden generation that saw them qualify for EURO 2016 and World Cup 2018 has aged and some of the key players are now retired. Other key players, meanwhile, are hanging on but they are long in the tooth. In recent times, due to that changing of the guard, Iceland has begun a youth infusion which has seen some growing pains.
Yesterday, I watched the Iceland – Romania game from this past Thursday to get a better feel for both countries since they are our next two opponents. I came away not impressed with either side. Romania won 2:0, but it was not because of anything special that they did. They simply took advantage of an Iceland side that lacks an identity right now. Iceland has a new coach and they want to play more possession football which is different from their prior philosophy of being compact/organized defensively and relying on counter attacks. Iceland is prone to make defensive miscues which is where our team must capitalize on Sunday.
Iceland created chances against Romania, but their finishing left a lot to be desired. Eventually, Romania got a lucky break to open the scoring early in the 2nd half. A shot from Stanciu was blocked by Iceland, and then the ball redirected perfectly for Romania, falling in the path of Dennis Man for a simple tap-in. Romania killed off the game with a late goal on the counter.
Romania got the win, but they conceded quite a few good looks to Iceland who failed to take advantage. Overall, both sides looked rather vulnerable and beatable. Unlike Iceland and Romania, our first September foe Armenia is way more compact, organized and disciplined as a team. They may not have as much talent as Iceland and Romania, but Armenia plays better as a cohesive unit.
The past is the past. The draw from Thursday is behind us. Now, the players/coaches have to be locked in to get two wins against Iceland and Romania. They are both beatable. Now, they will feel the same about us and rightfully so. We are also not in an ideal place when you consider the state of our defensive midfielders and attack.
Iceland will hand you chances, they just will. The issue will then be whether our finishing is up to par. It is fair to be concerned about the lack of natural goal-scorers on this squad.
I expect the same 11 players that started against Armenia to also start on Sunday. That means we will likely see Bardhi once again as the deep-lying playmaker in midfield, a position that the Italians call the regista, aka what Andrea Pirlo used to play. After re-watching Macedonia – Armenia, I thought Bardhi was our top performer along with Musliu and Dimitrievski.
Macedonia is really relying on attacking from the left flank with Alioski, Elmas and Trajkovski on that side. That can be a potent group, but Trajkovski must be sharper. Trajkovski turns 29 tomorrow, so hopefully he will wake up feeling good on his birthday and put together a solid performance.
My biggest concern for Sunday is the quick turnaround (less than three days) and the long trip to Iceland in-between. Will fatigue and jet lag be a problem? This is a game Macedonia should win, they really should, but ultimately it is about converting chances. The team must be better in the final third and take advantage of an Iceland side that is lacking an identity right now.
Prediction: Iceland 0:1 Macedonia