North Macedonian players woke up Friday morning to find that no, it’s not a dream, they really pulled off potentially the greatest upset in World Cup Qualifying in a generation. If you didn't see it, in the 92nd minute of their semifinal against Italy, North Macedonia got a sensational goal from Aleksandar Trajkovski to bring them to within one game of a spot in Qatar this winter for the World Cup.
Trajkovski’s strike is the kind that’s written in national folklore but, as mentioned, North Macedonia’s job is not done yet. Celebrations must be short because Tuesday they face another mammoth task, needing to earn their trip to Qatar by beating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. They will be written off much the same as against Italy, but don’t count out the North Macedonians yet. Here’s 2 reasons they can achieve the impossible and qualify for the World Cup.
North Macedonia-Portugal World Cup Qualifying final stunner
1. A stellar defensive record
You may have seen the Italy game and note that Italy probably should’ve scored at least one, if not more. Sure, that may be true, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in. One game, however, does not tell the story of the North Macedonian back line.
Throughout the group stage of qualifying, North Macedonia conceded only 11 goals in 10 games, with 7 of those coming in 2 games against Romania and Germany. The other 4 goals came across 3 games, meaning North Macedonia kept a clean sheet in half their group stage games, which in a group with the aforementioned Germany and Romania as well as Iceland and Armenia, is quite the accomplishment to say the least.
This bodes well against a Portuguese side who have struggled to find consistency at times during World Cup qualification, with a draw and a loss to Serbia, and a draw and a 2-1 win against Ireland that only came about through 2 Ronaldo goals in the 89th and 96th minutes. If North Macedonia can do what they did against Italy, which is just survive the attacks and live to fight another day, they may be able to find themselves a path past Portugal and into Qatar, be it in normal time, extra time or penalties, so expect the North Macedonian defense to be resolute and inspired, much the same as it was for them against the Italians.
2. The stakes for North Macedonia
North Macedonia have never made the World Cup before as an independent nation, therefore doing so is undoubtedly top priority for their national team. In fact, dating back to when the country was a part of the former state of Yugoslavia, it has been since 1990 that any country containing North Macedonia has reached the world's most premier international competition.
Their opponents have quite the stakes too, it must be said. This is likely the last World Cup opportunity for Cristiano Ronaldo, and Portugal haven't missed the World Cup since 1998. It would be a great shock to the Portuguese to miss out on qualification, potentially a bit more so than the shock that Italy received from this team.
However, for a country who have never made it, they sure don't play like it. Blagoja Milevski's team play with no fear at all, against anyone, and it's shown throughout both World Cup qualification and the Euros. Milevski has made clear to his team what lies ahead if they play well, and that message has clearly gotten through to his players. International competition is often shaped by which staffs can get their players to buy in the most, rather than pure talent like is often the case on the club side of things.
This is also a unique circumstance for North Macedonia to find themselves in, at least as far as typical European qualification goes. This is the first time, at least in recent history, that the qualification playoffs have been structured in such a way that only one team survives to reach the World Cup through this method, as in previous tournaments all 4 winners of first round playoff ties would qualify. Therefore, a win Tuesday would place the North Macedonians into even more rarified air.
Imagine, for a moment, the feeling of knowing you're one game away from your country's first World Cup. Even if they get eliminated in the group stage, those players would be national heroes for the rest of their lives, and I'm sure wouldn't pay for much in their home country for a while. That's what's at stake for these players, not just the glory of reaching the World Cup, but the pride of adding your name to your country's national mythology. With emotional motivations like the ones North Macedonian players are feeling right now, teams often perform at their absolute highest level, and if that holds true on Tuesday, the world is in for quite the surprise.