Italy missed out on the World Cup finals again after losing 1-0 at home to North Macedonia in their playoff semi-final as Aleksandar Trajkovski’s last-gasp strike earned the visitors a famous win.
Italy did not qualify for the World Cup four years ago, missing out for the first time since 1958, but the European champions dominated from the off in Palermo. The hosts became more desperate in their search for a winner after the break, however, as chances continued to come and go before, in stoppage time, Trajkovski arrowed in a stunning winner to spark wild North Macedonian celebrations.
Roberto Mancini’s Italy side had 32 efforts at goal in the match but somehow fell short, with North Macedonia going on to play Portugal in the playoff final on Tuesday for a place in Qatar.
“It is a huge disappointment,” the Italy midfielder Jorginho said. “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.”
Without the veteran pairing Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini through injury, Italy’s makeshift defence was barely troubled in the first half, as all the action took place down the other end.
Domenico Berardi had the best of the openings, having been presented with the ball after the North Macedonia goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski misplaced a pass, but his shot was tame, with Dimitrievski getting back to make the save. Ciro Immobile also wasted a glorious first-half chance for Italy when blazing over the bar from a good position.
Berardi was again guilty of profligacy after the break, shooting over when he should have hit the target, and with their only meaningful attack of the match North Macedonia seized their chance. Italy did not look to be in too much danger, but Trajkovski, who plays in Saudi Arabia for Al-Fayha, wrote his name into North Macedonian football folklore with a shot that crept inside the post to stun the home fans.
Portugal moved into the final with a 3-1 win over Turkey, for whom Burak Yilmaz skied a penalty five minutes from full time that would have drawn the sides level.
Roared on by a sold-out Estádio do Dragão in Porto, Portugal dominated the game from the start and went 2-0 up in the first half after Otavio scored one goal and created another for Diogo Jota before half-time. But Fernando Santos’s side were pegged back by a Yilmaz goal in the 65th minute that put the Portuguese fans on the edge of their seats as Turkey started to threaten.
José Fonte then fouled Enes Unal inside the area in the 85th minute to concede a penalty given by VAR but Yilmaz fired it high over the bar. The Portugal substitute Matheus Nunes relieved the pressure on the hosts in added time with their third goal from a counterattack.
The Sweden substitute Robin Quaison struck in the second half of extra time to secure a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic and set up a clash away to Poland.
The Czechs had an early goal ruled out for a foul and the Swedes had the lion’s share of possession for most of the playoff semi-final, but the two sides struggled to break each other down in a game full of tough tackling and wayward passing.
The substitute Mattias Svanberg went closest for the Swedes in normal time, but his header from Emil Forsberg’s corner was aimed straight at the visiting goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.
The game finished scoreless after 90 minutes and appeared to be heading for penalties when Quaison danced through the middle of the defence before exchanging passes with Alexander Isak and coolly slotting home to move his side a step closer to Qatar.
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