Portugal’s gruelling journey to 2022 FIFA World Cup is almost complete. North Macedonia are the last hurdle to overcome with the playoff final being contested at Estádio do Dragão on Tuesday.
Fernando Santos’ side looked to be cruising to the final after earning a 2-0 half time lead against Turkey. But in true Seleção fashion, they were a missed penalty away from allowing the Turks to equalise before a late goal secured a 3-1 victory.
North Macedonia snuck into the playoffs where they produced an incredible 1-0 victory against Italy. Gli Azzurri wasted chance after chance in Palermo before Aleksandar Trajkovski struck the killer blow in added time.
Head to Head
Portugal and North Macedonia have met on two occasions, both in international friendlies.
The Seleção won 1-0 in Switzerland in 2003 with Luís Figo scoring the winner for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side.
They last met in Leiria in 2012 with the match ending in a 0-0 draw. João Moutinho and Cristiano Ronaldo started, Rui Patrício and Pepe failing to get off the bench for Paulo Bento’s side.
Portugal ended 2021 with two poor results, the first a 0-0 draw against Republic of Ireland which was a game to forget in Dublin. They only needed a draw against Serbia at Estádio da Luz to reach the World Cup but couldn’t get it done.
It was looking promising when Renato Sanches opened the scoring in the 2nd minute, but Portugal went into their shell despite Fernando Santos’ best efforts to reverse the trend.
Dusan Tadic equalised before the break and Aleksandar Mitrovic struck the killer blow in the 90th minute, a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat sending the Seleção into another playoff.
Portugal beat Turkey 3-1 in the semi-finals, Otávio opening the scoring before assisting Diogo Jota who made it 2-0 before the break. Burak Yilmaz scored in the 65th minute before firing a penalty over the bar in the 85th minute.
Two substitutes combined to seal the deal in added time, Rafael Leão breaking free and releasing Matheus Nunes who secured Portugal’s spot in the final.
Portugal Squad & Team News
Goalkeepers: Rui Patrício, Anthony Lopes, Diogo Costa
Defenders: Raphaël Guerreiro, José Fonte, Cédric Soares, Pepe, João Cancelo, Nuno Mendes, Diogo Dalot, Gonçalo Inácio, Tiago Djaló
Midfielders: João Moutinho, William Carvalho, Bernardo Silva, Danilo Pereira, Bruno Fernandes, Matheus Nunes, Otávio, Vitinha
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, André Silva, Gonçalo Guedes, Diogo Jota, João Félix, Rafael Leão
Fernando Santos sprung a surprise against Turkey by replacing Rui Patrício with Diogo Costa. It was Costa’s first competitive start for the senior side, and it’s likely the 22-year-old remains in goal at the Estádio do Dragão.
Pepe has recovered from covid-19 and was integrated into the team’s training at Estádio do Bessa on Sunday morning. He should start in Porto which will be a big boost.
Joao Cancelo has served his suspension and will replace Diogo Dalot at right-back.
Santos reverted to the system that brought Portugal their first major trophy at the 2016 European Championship. Otávio has all the attributes to be successful in that system, as he proved against Turkey with a goal and an assist in a man of the match performance.
North Macedonia Form
North Macedonia won three of their final four World Cup qualifiers to sneak into the playoffs.
Blagoja Milevski’s side won 4-0 in Liechtenstein before a humbling 4-0 defeat to Germany in Skopje. They bounced back in style, winning 5-0 in Armenia with Enis Bardhi hitting a hat-trick and 3-1 against Iceland with Eljif Elmas bagging a brace.
North Macedonia shocked many by beating Italy 1-0 in Italy in the playoff semi-final. They were completely outplayed in Palermo, but hung in and scored in added time thanks to Aleksandar Trajkovski’s long range strike.
North Macedonia Squad & Team News
Goalkeepers: Stole Dimitrievski, Kristijan Naumovski, Damjan Shishkovski
Defenders: Todor Todoroski, Stefan Ashkovski, Kire Ristevski, Visar Musliu, Ezgjan Alioski, Stefan Ristovski, Darko Velkovski, Nikola Serafimov
Midfielders: Arijan Ademi, Elif Elmas, Enis Bardhi, Darko Churlinov, Boban Nikolov, Valon Ethemi, Stefan Spirovski, Tihomir Kostadinov, David Babunski, Erdal Rakip, Jani Atanasov
Forwards: Aleksandar Trajkovski, Dorian Babunski, Milan Ristovski, Bojan Miovski, Erdon Daci
Boban Nikolov suffered an injury against Italy and is doubtful. His potential absence is offset by Eljif Elmas and Tihomir Kostadinov returning from suspension.
Elmas is North Macedonia’s star player and his availability is a huge plus for Milevski’s side, but his fitness is a concern after playing just 85 minutes in the last month for Napoli.
Aleksandar Trajkovski has scored two goals in his last three internationals to make it 20 goals in 75 matches for his country.
Portugal have been given a gift with North Macedonia defeating Italy. The Seleção will control this match and have a large proportion of possession and shots.
The return of João Cancelo is a big boost and Pepe’s likely inclusion will be another positive in Porto. Otávio's confidence, familiarity at the at Estádio do Dragão and ability to suit Santos' system compliments a fine midfield and attack.
North Macedonia deserve respect after reaching the final and have scored in their last nine away matches in the World Cup qualifiers. Eljif Elmas' availability comes at the right time for Blagoja Milevski’s side.
Regardless, the stage is set for Ronaldo to steer Portugal to victory in front of a boisterous home crowd.