Italy v North Macedonia
Thursday 24 March, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports Arena
When Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, their run of 14 consecutive appearances at the tournament came to an ugly end.
Officials promised change and Roberto Mancini duly provided it in some style, his side becoming European champions on the back of a record-breaking 37-game unbeaten run.
But that simply makes it all the more remarkable that the Azzurri find themselves back in a familiar, unwanted position of needing to come through a play-off to avoid the ignominy of missing out on world football’s top table for the second time in a row.
It was unthinkable just eight months ago but no longer, especially after the draw put them in the same ‘path’ as Portugal.
Tricky test in store
A blockbuster showdown in Iberia has been widely anticipated but first Italy must deal with North Macedonia in Palermo.
Clearly there is huge pressure on Mancini and his squad, one which is missing key players with many of those who are available struggling for form and fitness.
Euro 2020 winners Federico Chiesa, Giovanni di Lorenzo and Leonardo Spinazzola are all absent, while the ‘old faithful’ centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci may also not make it into the field with the veteran duo having barely played at Juventus since Christmas due to injury issues.
Essentially, Italy may start this game with none of their first-choice back four from the Euros which has to offer some hope to the underdogs.
The hosts will hope the presence of Ciro Immobile and Domenico Berardi further forward will help propel them to victory – both have been in good form in Serie A, although Immobile has now gone six international games without a goal.
Duo banned for visitors
North Macedonia, 21.020/1 to win the game, have problems of their own with their midfield pair of Elif Elmas and Tihomir Kostadinov both suspended.
Still, as they showed at the Euros, they are a squad full of players prepared to scrap and the likes of Enis Bardhi, currently playing in La Liga for Levante, and Boban Nikolov may still be able to disrupt in the centre of the park.
It may not always be via fair means either – Macedonia were the dirtiest side to qualify for the Euros and picked up eight cards in their three games at the tournament. Sadly, card prices haven’t gone up at time of writing.
Macedonia lost all three of those games last summer, although they were far from embarrassed, scoring in two of their three matches.
They’ve lost just once since and while that was a heavy 4-0 defeat against a European giant, a rejuvenated Germany have looked much more impressive than Italy so far this season.
The Italians have won just two of their seven this term, and one of those was essentially a dead rubber – the third-place play-off at the Nations League finals. The other was against Lithuania – a defensively-weak side, who simply aren’t at the same level at Macedonia.
More significantly is a look at the games they haven’t won – a home draw with Bulgaria and an away stalemate in Northern Ireland were the results which cost them top spot in their group and again offer hope to their opponents in this match.
While it is almost five years ago, it’s also worth remembering that the Macedonians earned a 1-1 draw in Italy during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign – again a result which proved very costly for the Azzurri. The reverse fixture was edged 3-2 by the Italians so there will be plenty of memories of the problems Macedonia can cause.
Essentially, there looks a good chance that this will be closer than the odds suggest with Italy’s form and player problems suggesting this won’t be a walk in the park.
Goals at both ends?
I considered backing the visitors getting a two-goal start on the handicap at 1.8910/11 – profit made if they only lose by one. However, there’s an obvious risk about them conceding again late on if they are trailing by a single goal given that this is a one-legged tie which has the potential to open up if one side is chasing the game. In-play traders take note.
Instead, I prefer the 2.89/5 on offer about both teams scoring.
A blanket defence seems unlikely to work for Macedonia and in any case that’s not how they’ve tended to play.
They did at least have a go at the European Championships and were rewarded with goals in defeat to Austria and Ukraine.
With that Italian defence looking very much makeshift, the visitors should sense an opportunity and they’ve only got one crack at this – they might as well leave it all out there as they chase a first World Cup appearance.
Goran Pandev may have retired since the Euros but Aleksandar Trajkovski has an impressive tally of 19 international goals. It will also be interesting to see how far forward full-backs Ezgjan Alioski and Stefan Ristovski manage to get as both have contributed well attacking-wise in the past.
In terms of other possibilities – especially for this looking for at Bet Builders – right-back Ristovski is worth considering in the shot markets.
He’s at 13/8 for 1+ shot, something he managed in two of the three Euros matches.
On the other side of the ball, Italy’s likely left-back Emerson will be encouraged to push on and he’s at 7/4 for 2+ shots, something he’s managed in four of his last 14 competitive international starts.
Italy are likely to dominate the ball so this has potential.