The day is nearly here, 24 March. It has been circled on the calendar for Macedonian football fans throughout the world. The play-off draw certainly did us no favors by pitting our national team against Italy and then, if victorious, Portugal or Turkey. Not just that, but both games, if the second happens, would be on the road. Just a brutal path. However, the excitement does not wane. If Macedonia reaches the World Cup for the first time, it will have to earn it.
photo by FFM
In a way, I am at peace with whatever happens tomorrow. It would be unrealistic to expect victory (it just would), but it would not be unrealistic to expect a hard-fought battle and great effort. All the pressure is on Italy. They are expected to not only win, but win easily. The job of the Macedonian players is to not make it easy. If Italy wins, make them earn it. Do not have too much respect for Italy and do not beat yourself. If Italy wins courtesy of great goals, so be it. But, do not make silly errors to gift them avoidable goals. Also, my hope is that the referee, Clement Turpin, will be objective and he will not whistle a soft penalty for Italy. He does have a reputation for being penalty-happy, and make no mistake if there is a penalty issued in tomorrow’s game, it will be for Italy.
Macedonia will be missing two players in Elif Elmas and Tihomir Kostadinov due to yellow card accumulation. Both of those guys are starters, when healthy. Elmas is our most expensive player on the transfer market, so he is a massive loss, while Kostadinov is well liked by coach Blagoja Milevski for his constant running and energy in midfield. If Kostadinov was available, I would have expected him to start over Boban Nikolov. However, with Kostadinov out, I expect Nikolov to partner Arijan Ademi and Enis Bardhi in midfield. There is no dilemma with the keeper (Dimitrievski), defense (S. Ristovski, Velkovski, Musliu, Alioski from right to left) and attack (Trajkovski and Churlinov on the wings and M. Ristovski at CF).
In particular, this will be a special game for Aleksandar Trajkovski. He spent four years playing for Palermo where tomorrow’s match will be played. Ilija Nestorovski, another long-time member of our national team, also spent multiple years with Palermo (he was even captain for them), but coach Milevski did not call up Nestorovski due to his lack of match fitness (Nestorovski is mainly a bench warmer for Udinese these days). Nestorovski was undoubtedly disappointed to miss out.
Italy, meanwhile, has problems in defense. Their preferred full-back starters (Di Lorenzo at RB and Spinazzola at LB) are both out injured, while their iconic CB duo Chiellini and Bonucci are very much questionable due to match fitness issues. So, Italy is expected to field a makeshift defense. The issue for us is that I do not believe our attack is good enough to expose that vulnerability. I am just not a fan of any of our CF’s, and Trajkovski/Churlinov on the wings have limitations to their games.
Italy has a strong midfield with Verratti, Barella and Jorginho, while their front three is expected to be Insigne, Berardi and Immobile.
I actually expect Bardhi and Ademi to hold up well in midfield (we’ll see if Ademi is fit enough to last all 90 minutes), but the main question mark will be how Boban Nikolov fares. He briefly played in Serie B with Lecce last season, while he did gain some valuable Champions League experience this campaign playing for Sheriff, one of the major surprises in the competition
The longer the game stays tied, the more restless/antsy the Italian players and crowd will get. The atmosphere will be loud as the game sold out and a full capacity crowd will be allowed (COVID restrictions were lifted).
Italy has a major edge on the bench. If they need a spark, they have plenty of quality options to choose from on the bench, while our bench is just blah. Nowhere near good enough. Once substitutions happen, that is bad for us because we are getting worse.
The biggest misconception is people expecting us to park the bus, so to speak. I really do not see that happening. Coach Milevski is rather brave with his tactics, for better or worse, so I do not envision an overly defensive approach. The team will go for it and again they have nothing to lose. They can only gain. Enjoy the atmosphere. I am sure you dream of playing in such games as a kid. Just do your best and do not beat yourself. Make Italy earn it if they win.
Prediction: Italy – Macedonia 2:0