World Cup qualifying resumes on Thursday when Macedonia hosts Armenia in a fixture with massive implications. This is matchday 4 already and the pressure will be on to stop Armenia’s unexpected perfect start in group play. Armenia has the maximum 9 points, although they have yet to play Macedonia or Germany, the strongest team in the group.
Both Armenia and Macedonia will be missing three key players. For Armenia, three of their top performers in qualifying are out on Thursday due to yellow card bans. Defender Haroyan, midfielder Bayramyan and attacker Barseghyan are suspended. Barseghyan has arguably been Armenia’s best player so far. In total, those three missing pieces on Thursday have scored 4 of Armenia’s 6 goals in qualifying thus far. As you can see, major absences for Armenia.
For Macedonia, meanwhile, Goran Pandev retired from the national team (even if he had not, he would have missed the Armenia match with a yellow card ban too), Ilija Nestorovski has a torn ACL which will keep him sidelined for the rest of 2021, while Arijan Ademi is out through injury as well, although he is expected back for the October qualifiers.
Thursday will be the first game in charge for new Macedonia head coach Blagoja Milevski. He takes over from Igor Angelovski who departed after EURO 2020. Milevski was promoted to the role from the U21’s where he experienced plenty of success. He knows many of the key players on the current senior national team because he formerly coached them on the U21 side.
However, a change in coach is a change in coach. The senior national team is a different beast in terms of pressure, and Milevski is getting thrown right into the fire during the middle of qualifiers. That means there will be no time for a honeymoon period. The pressure is on to deliver results and that starts in September with three challenging, yet beatable, opponents.
First on the docket is Armenia, a team that Macedonia has seen quite a bit over the past several years. It seems we can’t escape one another in draws. Playing away to Armenia has been a house of horrors for Macedonia, but home matches usually see Macedonia prevail in tight, competitive matches. Another close encounter is expected later today.
Spanish coach Joaquín Caparrós has stabilized Armenia’s national team. They are a compact, well coached side under him. A weird dynamic is that Armenia won their first three games in qualifying without their best and most well known player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Roma. He was not in the squad for their first three games since he was not seeing eye to eye with Caparros. However, the differences have been resolved and Mkhitaryan is back on the squad.
The Armenia defense without Haroyan looks very leaky on paper. Haroyan is their undisputed leader and best player on defense, so Macedonia must capitalize on his absence. Frankly, this is a game where Elmas, Bardhi and Trajkovski should feast and overwhelm Armenia’s defense.
We still do not know what formation Milevski will go with. His predecessor Angelovski preferred a 3-5-2, so we will see what Milevski has in mind. The biggest concern for Macedonia right now is defensive midfield with Ademi out injured, while Nikolov (recently signed with a new club and battled COVID-19) and Spirovski (recently terminated his contract at club level) have not played a competitive match since EURO 2020 back in June due to their bad club situations this summer.
I definitely foresee a tight, competitive fixture given the familiarity of the two teams and the huge stakes of this match. The result will set the tone, whether good or bad, for the rest of these World Cup qualifiers. I feel the three most likely scorelines are 1:1 draw or 2:1 win either way.
Prediction: Macedonia 2-1 Armenia
Previous meetings: (G10 W4 D2 L4 GD 15:17)
10.05.1995 2:2 draw (match report) Q
06.09.1995 1:2 defeat (match report) Q
18.08.2004 3:0 win (match report) Q
04.06.2005 2:1 win (match report) Q
07.09.2010 2:2 draw (match report) Q
07.10.2011 1:4 defeat (match report) Q
09.09.2018 2:0 win (match report) NL
16.10.2018 0:4 defeat (match report) NL
05.09.2020 2:1 win (match report) NL
18.11.2020 0:1 defeat (match report) NL