Shock defeat to North Macedonia ends Italy’s World Cup hopes

Playoffs round-up: Portugal survive late scare while Sweden beat Czechs in extra-time

Italy 0 North Macedonia 1

Italy missed out on the World Cup finals again after losing 1-0 at home to North Macedonia in their playoff semi-final on Thursday as Aleksandar Trajkovski’s last-gasp strike earned the visitors a famous win.

European champions Italy did not qualify for the World Cup four years ago, their first failure to reach soccer's global showpiece tournament since 1958, but they dominated from the off in Palermo and looked on course for victory.

The hosts became more desperate in their search for a winner after the break 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 next week for a place in the Qatar World Cup which will not involve Italy once more.

Without 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 North Macedonia goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski misplaced a pass, but the Sassuolo forward's 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.

As the match wore on, Italy nerves kicked in and their finishing became more erratic. Mancini shuffled his pack, giving Cagliari striker Joao Pedro his debut, but 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, had other ideas, writing his name into North Macedonian folklore with a shot that crept inside the post to stun the home fans.

Portugal 3 Turkey 1

Portugal moved one step closer to reaching the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Turkey, whose striker Burak Yilmaz skied a penalty five minutes from full time that would have drawn the sides level in their playoff semi-final on Thursday.

Roared by a sold-out Dragao Stadium 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.

But Fernando Santos’s side were pegged back by a Yilmaz goal in 65th minute that put the Portuguese fans on the edge of their seats as Turkey started to threaten.

Defender Jose Fonte then fouled Enes Unal inside the area in the 85th minute to concede a penalty that Yilmaz fired high over the bar.

Portugal substitute Matheus Nunes relieved the pressure on the hosts in added time with their third goal from a counter attack.

After missing out on automatic qualification in November, they will now host North Macedonia on Tuesday with the winner qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Sweden 1 Czech Republic 0

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 next Tuesday with a place at the World Cup finals in Qatar up for grabs.

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.

Alexander Isak almost opened the scoring early with a deft volley form a corner that flew just wide, and winger Emil Forsberg had a shot deflected past the post just before half-time as Sweden tried to take the game to the Czechs.

The attacking trio of Forsberg, Isak and Dejan Kulusevski caused the injury-hit Czechs all manner of problems but, with the Swedes missing both of their first-choice full backs, they often struggled to get the ball to their forwards out wide.

The visitors had some dangerous moments of their own, with Tomas Soucek flashing a header just wide on the hour and Jan Kuchta wasting a decent chance by curling a shot past the left post when he should at least have forced a save by Robin Olsen.

Sweden substitute Mattias Svanberg went closest for the Swedes in normal time, but his header from Forsberg's corner was aimed straight at visiting goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.

The game finished scoreless after 90 minutes and appeared to be heading for penalties when Quaison danced through the defence before exchanging passes with Isak and lotting the ball into the net to send the home fans in the 48,628 crowd into ecstasy.

Playoff finals:

Sweden v Poland
Wales v Scotland/Ukraine
Portugal v North Macedonia

Winners qualify for the World Cup finals. Games to be played Tuesday, March 29th, except for Wales v Scotland/Ukraine.

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