Preview: Portugal vs. North Macedonia 

Preview: Portugal vs. North Macedonia 

With potentially only 90 minutes separating them from another slice of international history, North Macedonia travel to the Estadio do Dragao to face Portugal in their World Cup 2022 playoff final on Tuesday evening.

Fernando Santos’s side swept aside Turkey 3-1 in their semi-final encounter, while the visitors sunk reigning European champions Italy 1-0 on a magnificent night in Palermo.

Refusing to let the astonishing scenes across the pond in Italy affect them, Portugal and their heavily depleted defence stuck to the task at hand against Turkey in their playoff semi-final and quickly went two goals to the good through Otavio’s close-range finish and Diogo Jota’s expertly-placed header.

Burak Yilmaz then went from hero to zero for Turkey, as the Lille veteran slotted home to reduce the deficit before blazing a penalty over the crossbar, and Portugal made sure of the result with seconds remaining as Matheus Nunes rounded off the scoring.

The Euro 2016 winners went into the semi-final with three of their defensive stalwarts in Joao Cancelo, Pepe and Ruben Dias absent for one reason or another, but their rightful place at the World Cup finals is now firmly within their sights.

Not since 1998 have Portugal failed to qualify for the biggest tournament of them all, but Santos has insisted that his side will pay North Macedonia the respect that they command on Tuesday, although finding the back of the net should not be a problem for Santos’s men.

Indeed, Portugal have scored in each of their last 19 World Cup qualifying matches on home soil since drawing a blank in a goalless draw with Sweden back in March 2009, but North Macedonia are no strangers to quelling a normally rampant attack.

Football. No other words were necessary on Thursday night. Written off by many before the first ball was kicked at the Stadio Renzo Barbera, North Macedonia’s meteoric rise reached new heights as Italy were consigned to a second successive cycle without World Cup football.

With Roberto Mancini’s side spurning opportunity after opportunity to break the deadlock on home soil – Domenico Berardi in particular was guilty of profligacy on the night – both sets of players fell to their knees for different reasons as Aleksandar Trajkovski fired home past Gianluigi Donnarumma deep into second-half injury time.

Whatever transpires in Porto on Tuesday night, the images of North Macedonia celebrating victory over the Euro 2020 winners and 2006 World Cup champions will linger long in the memories of Blagoja Milevski and co, with the manager claiming that his side “won Italian style” against the wasteful Azzurri.

North Macedonia’s cherished victory in Palermo marked their third win on the bounce in World Cup qualifying – as well as their third successive win and clean sheet away from home – and there is certainly no reason for Milevski’s side to believe that they cannot go all the way and book their tickets to a first-ever World Cup finals tournament.

The visitors did manage to hold Portugal to a memorable 0-0 draw the last time that the two sides met back in a 2012 friendly, with Tuesday’s game marking the first-ever competitive scrap between the two nations as North Macedonia aim to make lightning strike twice in Porto.

Portugal World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Portugal form (all competitions):
North Macedonia World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:

We say: Portugal 2-0 North Macedonia
While North Macedonia deserve immense credit and more for defeating the European champions on their own turf, a more clinical side would certainly have taken at least one of their 32 chances to break down Milevski’s defence.

The visitors have proved us wrong before, but Portugal needed no such lessons in ruthlessness against Turkey and possess quite the plethora of attacking options from the bench should things get a little pear-shaped, and we can only envisage Santos’s side advancing to Qatar as North Macedonia’s magical journey ends at the final hurdle.

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