Barely eight months ago, Italy celebrated one of its greatest triumphs in European football. They beat England at Wembley to win Euro 2020. Now they pay the price for a disjointed World Cup qualification campaign where they finished runners-up to Switzerland in their group. They won four and drew four of their eight matches. There is no doubt the mood amongst the entire squad, staff, and indeed Italy as a nation is one of gloom and disappointment. They would be reeling with the agony of this defeat for the time to come. They have now failed to qualify for the FIFA world cup for the second time in succession. The first time, they lost to Sweden in the 2018 qualifiers.
A smash and grab performance saw the visitors thwart the Azzurri. Italy had 32 shots at goal with nothing to show for it. They lacked the spark needed to turn it up a notch and produce a victory. North Macedonia were outmatched, outplayed but refused to be outscored as they inflicted Italy’s first loss at home in a world cup qualifier match. It came in the one they could not afford to lose. Roberto Mancini missed several players that helped Italy win the European Championship last summer. The absence of Stalwart Leonardo Bonnucci and team skipper Giorgio Chiellini saw the Italy boss field a makeshift defense. Gianluca Mancini and Alessandro Bastoni came in. Makeshift or not, North Macedonia lacked the quality and firepower to cause any real trouble.
Italy got off to a dominating start as expected. They created numerous chances but struggled to find a way past the wall of red shirts. The Azzurri were presented with a great opportunity in the 30th minute after a horrendous kick from Stole Dimitrievski left Domenico Berardi with an open goal. With the goal at his mercy, the Sassuolo forward scuffed his shot and allowed Dimitrievski to get back in time and make the save. It was a let-off, and the save flattered Dimitrievski. Moments later, he atoned for his error by pulling off two last-ditch blocks to deny Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. North Macedonia had its first attempt on goal on the stroke of halftime when Enis Bardi threaded a ball through for Trajkovski. His effort was straight at the large Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Berardi was on a quest to atone for his first-half howler, but he spurned two more chances. His first attempt was saved comfortably by Dimitrievski. He haplessly blazed his second over the bar while Marco Verratti curled agonizingly wide in-between. Football is a game of tactics, structure, and precision, but sometimes you need a bit of luck for things to go your way. Mancini’s side lacked that. The Azzurri camped outside North Macedonia’s 18-yard area. They spurned chances as they created and paid a demoralizing price for their wastefulness. In the 92nd minute, former Palermo forward Aleksandar Trajkovski seized possession and rifled a vicious low shot into the bottom left corner from 25 yards. His goal sent the North Macedonia fans and bench into rapturous joy at the Stadio Renzo Barbera in Palermo, leaving Roberto Mancini and Italy stunned.
“I am proud of a team that has given everything, it is clear that we are destroyed and crushed. A great void will remain within us. There is a great disappointment, even today we played a good game but we couldn’t score. From September to today we have made mistakes and we have paid for them.” – 37-year-old Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini after the game.
“It is a huge disappointment”, said Jorginho to Rai Sport. “It hurts. It hurts so much. We have always created and dominated matches, but we have not been able to finish teams off. It is not to blame anyone in particular, but it is the reality. I don’t know why we haven’t been able to do this, I am also involved in this, and it hurts me to think about it.”
Roberto Mancini also apologized to the fans for the disappointment in his post-match press conference. The former Manchester City gaffer said that he was more than disappointed with the outcome. “I’m more than disappointed, I’ve nothing to say. Something incredible happened tonight. We deserved to win the Euros, now we’ve been really unlucky…but that’s it, that’s the reality. I’m sorry for the players,”.
The boss added that he was too disappointed to discuss his future before encouraging the players. “I have to say, I care more for my lads now than in July. This is such a tough moment. My affection for them is immense. It’s too early to say what happens next, as there is such disappointment, but at the same time, this is a squad of great players with a bright future.”
Italy expected to set up a crunch tie with fellow European giants Portugal by seeing off North Macedonia. Portugal had to defeat the stubborn Turks, which they did by 3-1. However, the Azzurri were left to rue missed opportunities and not only in the game. Roberto Mancini’s side only needed playoffs after Jorginho missed a penalty against Switzerland last year. Had he scored, Italy would have qualified automatically. Aleksandar Trajkovski’s late piledriver pierced the hearts of the European champions and the supporters in Palermo who once cheered him on.
Legends like Fabio Capello and the likes can expound thousands and thousands of theories about why the Italian team won’t be at the World Cup. The theories about Serie A, Tammy Abraham, and Romelu Lukaku are absolute dogshit. Massimo Oddo can spew whatever he wants, but this team won the European championship. All they needed was luck, and it turned its back on them.
Congratulate a brilliant team for holding on, send Immobile and Berardi to a training camp in Alaska to pay for their sins, and pray for better luck next time. These upsets make the beautiful game what it is. North Macedonia are just 90 minutes away from their first-ever world cup campaign. That’s a win for the beautiful game. They face Portugal in the playoff final next week for a place at Qatar 2022. What a game we could have on our hands.