Italy will miss out on the World Cup for the second successive tournament after the Euro 2020 winners were stunned by a stoppage-time winner from North Macedonia in Thursday’s playoff semifinal in Palermo.
With Italy frustrated for 90 minutes by a heroic North Macedonia defensive performance, Aleksandar Trajkovski, a former Palermo player, struck the only goal of the game in the second minute of added time, inflicting Italy’s first defeat in 60 home World Cup qualifiers.
The victory means North Macedonia, ranked 60 places below Italy in the FIFA rankings, will now take on Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo in the playoff final on Tuesday with a place in Qatar on the line.
“It is a huge disappointment,” Jorginho told 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.”
Italy had an incredible 32 shots at goal, to North Macedonia’s four, but couldn’t find a breakthrough and were once again left to reflect on what might have been. Missed opportunities were ultimately the story of the Azzurri‘s campaign, with Roberto Mancini’s side only in the playoffs after Jorginho missed a penalty against Switzerland last year that would have given them a win to qualify automatically.
After 30 minutes of dominating without seriously threatening the North Macedonian goal, Italy were gifted a glorious chance to take the lead. But after Stole Dimitrievski, out of his goal, cleared the ball straight to him on the edge of the box, Domenico Berardi could only produce a tame shot that allowed the North Macedonia goalkeeper to recover and make the save.
The chance sparked a wave of Italy pressure but, missing striker Andrea Belotti and Gianluca Scamacca, they lacked a clinical touch in front of goal. And some inspired North Macedonia defending thwarted the hosts with a series of blocks and clearances.
The same pattern continued into the second half. Berardi curled another effort wide and then had a shot blocked from six yards but there became an increasing air of desperation to the Italians’ attacking forays.
The best chance of the half fell to one of Italy’s substitutes, Lorenzo Pellegrini, but the Roma midfielder neither found the goal or a teammate with his wayward cross-shot.
The contest looked set for extra-time and potential penalties, until Trajkovski, who played in the same stadium for four years, dramatically broke the hearts of the European champions and the supporters who once cheered him on in Palermo.
It is just eight months since Roberto Mancini’s side celebrated one of their greatest triumphs – beating England at Wembley to win Euro 2020 having been considered outsiders going into the tournament.
But they have now paid the price for a disjointed – if previously unbeaten – World Cup qualification campaign during which they finished runners-up to Switzerland in their group, winning four and drawing four of their eight matches.
As expected Italy dominated possession on Thursday but failed to penetrate the resolute North Macedonia defence, registering five shots on target from 32 attempts.
The visitors, ranked 67th in the world, are rewarded for their defensive display with a play-off final against Portugal, who beat Turkey 3-1.
North Macedonia are 90 minutes away from reaching consecutive tournaments, having never reached a Euros or World Cup before qualifying for Euro 2020.
Four-time World Cup winners Italy, who are ranked sixth in the world, will watch events in Qatar in November and December from afar.