Portugal and Italy are one game from the ULTIMATE World Cup play-off… but write off their opponents at your peril! Turkey have netted in ALL their qualifiers so far, while unfancied North Macedonia are a team more than ready to spoil the party
- Portugal face Turkey and Italy face North Macedonia in the World Cup play-offs
- Many have been left salivating by the prospect of a Portugal-Italy showdown
- But Turkey, despite a disastrous Euro 2020, have looked capable of scoring goals
- North Macedonia struggled at the Euros but have shown some promise since
Portugal boss Fernando Santos did not mince his words when describing the undoubted magnitude of their World Cup play-off semi-final against Turkey.
‘This is the most important challenge I have had. Not the most difficult, the most important. We must be in the World Cup for our people,’ he said.
‘The tickets were sold-out in minutes more than a month ago. Our fans will be a major factor and we can’t let them down.’
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal face Turkey in their World Cup play-off semi-final on Thursday
They could meet Roberto Mancini’s Italy, who will have to see of North Macedonia first
Italy boss Roberto Mancini appeared slightly more relaxed despite persistent questions over his decision to omit Mario Balotelli from his squad, insisting he was ‘not worried’ about his players’ form ahead of their showdown with North Macedonia.
Whatever unravels over the next few days, one of those world heavyweights will not fill one of the three European berths yet to be decided ahead of this winter’s tournament in Qatar.
And while many are salivating at the prospect of a showdown between Italy and Portugal at the weekend in an ultimate World Cup eliminator, their semi-finals will not be a matter of simple and easy negotiation.
Turkey take on Portugal in Porto having finished as runners-up to Holland in Group G, but they do so in some form.
Turkey take on Portugal in Porto having finished as runners-up to Holland in Group G
Stefan Kuntz’s men recorded 2-1 victories away in Latvia and Montenegro either side of a 6-0 hammering of Gibraltar in their final three fixtures in the group phase.
It may not have been enough to pip Louis van Gaal’s men to top spot and automatic qualification for Qatar, but Kuntz will hope there are at least the remnants of the adage that winning breeds confidence left among his squad.
The wins demonstrate they are not a goal-shy side, having netted in every one of their World Cup 2022 qualifiers to date. Burak Yilmaz may carry the majority of the scoring burden, but Orkun Kokcu and Cengiz Under have the potential to inflict damage. Hakan Calhanoglu is capable of the spectacular, too.
They will after all be facing a depleted Portuguese defence that will miss the experience of Pepe due to Covid, while Man City star Ruben Dias has already been ruled out with a hamstring problem.
Burak Yilmaz carries the goalscoring burden but Hakan Calhanoglu (above) is capable of the spectacular
There are therefore enough reasons for optimism for Kuntz’s side, who are hoping to reach the World Cup finals for just the third time in their history. But a look back at what preceded their last three wins paints a very different picture.
Last summer, everyone’s prediction for dark horses at Euro 2020 crashed out of the tournament without a single point to their name. It was so humiliating that they parted ways with boss Senol Gunes not long after.
The Crescent Stars will argue their form since their chastening Euros experience has been encouraging, with only one defeat coming in seven games.
The counter argument is that their sole reverse saw a large margin of defeat, with another European giant in Holland handing out a 6-1 thrashing in September, a game which saw Memphis Depay net a hat-trick and Caglar Soyuncu sent off for Turkey.
The Crescent Stars however crashed out of Euro 2020 last summer without a single point
The Leicester defender’s fortunes have not improved much since in an underwhelming season for the Foxes, but the raw ingredients remain for him to frustrate Cristiano Ronaldo and Co in a strong partnership with Merih Demiral.
Zeki Celik – heavily linked with a Premier League move last summer – is back in form and could also start at the back along with the returning Mert Muldur from suspension.
But Kuntz will need them to gel immediately, with only Gibraltar (43) conceding more goals than Turkey’s 16 in Group G. And as the German has found out, that cohesion is not an easy objective to accomplish on a consistent basis.
Overall though, Turkey have a group of young players who if developed correctly could form the country’s next golden generation with the right direction. How far along in that process they are will be determined by whether they managed to make the World Cup for the first time since they came third at the 2002 event.
North Macedonia will be without the injured Goran Pandev (centre) and suspended Eljif Elmas (second from right)
North Macedonia meanwhile have never reached a finals and any chance of reaching Qatar will have to be achieved without the services of the country’s all-time leading scorer Goran Pandev following his post-Euros international retirement.
Eljif Elmas appears to be their new talisman with four goals already in qualifying, netting twice crucially in the 3-1 win against Iceland in their final group game.
But the 22-year-old Napoli star – already among the top five of his country’s all-time leading scorers with nine strikes – will also miss the game to serve a one-match suspension.
Nevertheless, a spot in the European play-offs by finishing second in Group J behind Germany – and pipping Romania to it by a single point – is still an immense source of national pride ahead of their Palermo showdown.
Elmas is also just one flourishing piece in a heavily attack-minded side, demonstrated by their 23 goals in the group stage and dominant victories against the likes of Iceland and Armenia.
But finishing second behind Germany in the group is a source of pride for the country
The likes of goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski and defender Enis Bardhi will be familiar to LaLiga fans while followers of the 2. Bundesliga may be familiar with Ingolstadt’s Visar Musliu and Schalke’s Darko Chulinov.
Another factor that may go in their favour is the potential scars their opponents on Thursday are still carrying from four years ago on home soil.
Italy’s failure to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958 after a play-off defeat against Sweden in Milan sent shockwaves around the football world.
Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were said to be considering international retirement in the wake of the defeat, but they are still knocking about to this day, although neither look likely to play on Thursday.
Pandev is taking encouragement in that, adding: ‘They’ve been playing together for many years, they know each other well and it will be a big advantage for us to face Italy without them.’
Italy however could still be reeling from their shock defeat by Sweden four years ago
And further optimism will no doubt stem from the fact North Macedonia defeated a European giant 12 months ago in a historic 2-1 triumph against Germany in Duisburg, albeit with the services of Pandev.
But they have clearly not faltered even after the retirement of the former Inter Milan star.
They have lost just one of their last seven World Cup qualifying matches, and have kept four clean sheets in that period too.
They have also won 10 points from their last 12 on their travels in World Cup qualifying, and the last time they failed to score away from home in qualification came more than five years ago in November 2016.
Even their last match on Italian soil went well in a 1-1 draw during qualification for the World Cup in Russia four years ago.
North Macedonia also caused an upset last year, famously defeating Germany 2-1 in Duisburg
There is however simply no substitute for experience, and North Macedonia’s lack of it was significantly exploited by Austria, Ukraine and the Netherlands in a pointless Euro 2020 for Blagoja Milevski’s men.
But it was nonetheless a brave effort in a maiden competitive tournament for the nation, and it was due to similar resilience and poor output from Italy’s forwards last time out that saw Sweden deliver a crushing blow to the Azzurri.
Now four years on, Italy would be wise to take North Macedonia’s threat seriously if they want to avoid a second straight World Cup of watching the tournament from their living rooms.
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