The collapse at Iceland and the uninspiring home display versus Armenia, both resulting in draws, can all be forgiven if Macedonia is able to bounce back with a win over Romania.
You see, with a win on Wednesday, Macedonia will be in the driver seat for 2nd place in the group. What that means is we would control our own destiny. The supposedly toughest trips, those away to Germany, Romania and Iceland, are already done. Beat Romania at home on Wednesday and the picture for 2nd place in the group looks very rosy. A draw would be so so (to me, it just would not cut it), while a loss pretty much ends any hope of 2nd place. We would not be mathematically eliminated, but realistically there is no path with a loss on Wednesday.
So, the stakes are massive. We should expect a chippy, feisty match since a lot is on the line. UEFA is also expecting that based on their referee appointment. The man who was in charge of the last Champions League final, a no nonsense Spaniard named Antonio Mateu Lahoz, will referee the encounter. He will have a tough task in front of him to put his imprint on the game.
Romania comes into Macedonia on the back of two 2:0 victories this month. They won by those scores at Iceland and versus Liechtenstein. Despite the two wins, Romania has major headaches caused by injuries and COVID-19. Their #1 striker this month, Denis Alibec, suffered an injury at Iceland and was withdrawn from the squad. Meanwhile, two midfielders who happened to score one goal apiece against Macedonia in our first meeting against Romania, are not available on Wednesday. Ianis Hagi, the scorer of the game winner in Romania’s 3:2 win back in March of this year, tested positive for COVID-19, while Florin Tănase is out injured.
The Romania coach, Mirel Rădoi, did not call up replacements out of concern for more COVID-19 related problems caused by bringing in players from outside of the bubble. Radoi also happens to be stubborn and frankly, in my view, in over his head. This remains a beatable Romania side.
What Romania has going for itself is that they are catching our team at the right time. There are physical (fatigue) and psychological (impact of blowing late 2:0 lead) unknowns, frankly.
Three games in seven days is a brutal stretch, made even more challenging when you have a bad bench that does not allow you to rotate the squad much. One positive is that midfielder Boban Nikolov is expected back after missing the Armenia and Iceland games. In saying that, he was having match fitness issues. How effective he can be right now remains a legitimate question.
You also have to consider the element of two long trips in a short period of time. You had a long trip to Iceland followed by a long return trip from Iceland to Macedonia. That is not easy on the body either. Romania, meanwhile, rested a number of players in their prior game against Liechtenstein and had a relatively short trip to make from Romania to Macedonia. So, they are the fresher side for sure. Still, despite those advantages, this is not a great Romania side at all. They are very beatable.
On Wednesday, we will learn about the resiliency and character of our players. How do they bounce back from blowing what looked to be a sure win at Iceland? Do they also fight through the fatigue and persevere, or do they wilt and quit?
I do not have a good feel for this match. That is the simple truth. Too many unknowns out there. If Romania was a good side, I would pick them to win because they are catching us at the right time. However, Romania is not a good team right now. They concede a lot of quality chances and nothing about them, at this moment, is impressive under their current coach who I feel is in over his head. They were very fortunate in the first meeting when they won 3:2. It would suck to lose another match to them in a similar frustrating circumstance, but it is possible. Errors caused by fatigue are a major worry, and that is all it takes to blow a game. My heart wants to say 2:1 Macedonia, my head/gut is saying 1:2 Romania, but in the end we will probably get an unpopular 1:1 or 2:2 draw.
Prediction: Macedonia 1:1 Romania
Past encounters: (G6 W1 D0 L5 GD 7:14)
14.12.1996 0:3 defeat (match report) Q
20.08.1997 2:4 defeat (match report) Q
04.09.2004 1:2 defeat (match report) Q
30.03.2005 1:2 defeat (match report) Q
02.06.2010 1:0 win (match report) F
25.03.2021 3:2 defeat (match report) Q