Portugal 2-0 North Macedonia
The Estádio do Dragão was packed to the rafters with fans cheering every important milestone as Portugal booked their ticket to the World Cup finals in Qatar.
A rare gift from the visitors set up Bruno Fernandes to score Portugal’s first of the night then the heavily criticized midfielder made it two in the second half to put the game beyond reach.
Fernando Santos' lineup against Turkey had raised some eyebrows, but there were few surprises with the return of Pepe and João Cancelo. Nuno Mendes was preferred over Raphael Guerreiro leaving Danilo the only player on the back four not replaced from the playoff semifinal against Turkey.
The opening exchange was cagey, and Nuno Mendes finally flashed a ball across the face of goal which was just too strong for Ronaldo. Then just before the quarter hour mark, Otávio sent Cristiano Ronaldo through on goal, and with his weaker left foot Portugal’s Captain dragged the shot wide right, the game’s first meaningful chance.
But the visitors expertly slowed the tempo of the match, drawing fouls and congesting the middle third to force risky and ineffective passes. Alioski volleyed North Macedonia’s first effort after a cross found him unmarked but it failed to trouble Diogo Costa.
Jota was next to go close following a corner from the right, but his attempted header bounced off the ground and over the crossbar.
No shots on goal from either side were registered in the opening half hour. But Portugal were not to be denied any longer. Bruno Fernandes latched onto a careless giveaway from Stefan Ristovski and passed to Ronaldo who then nutmegged his marker to tee up Fernandes to slot home the critical opener.
Ronaldo nearly set up Jota minutes later with a layback following a cross over the defence, but Jota could only shoot into the side-netting from a tight angle. A final blast over the bar from Cancelo brought half to an end with Portugal having finished the half with 69% possession and only one shot on goal from seven attempts.
FT Portugal 2-0 North Macedonia. Bruno Fernandes at the double as the Seleção book their ticket to Qatar. Visitors rarely looked like troubling Diogo Costa at the Estádio do Dragão. pic.twitter.com/jtQvHhRPvo— Matthew Marshall (@noobzcorp) March 29, 2022
North Macedonia made one change to start the second half. Bruno Fernandes was first to hit target in the second half after the visitors failed to break the press. Portugal were measured in their approach not taking undue risks but preventing the visitors from possessing the ball too near Costa.
Then, Portugal struck again. Pepe halted a threatening attack with a brilliant challenge, and Fernandes started a counter which found Jota on the left. The Liverpool forward’s cross over the top found Bruno Fernandes, who had made the run from his own half, and the Manchester United playmaker made no mistake to double Portugal’s lead.
Pepe in beast mode
Having been so rarely threatened, the hosts had little else to do but protect their lead and Pepe was happy to oblige as he denied Trajkovski with a typically heavy but fair challenge inside the penalty area. Vitinha received his senior debut in stoppage time as Portugal closed out a successful evening.
Portugal did what was required but were far from impressive. In a match of such significance, there were very few moments of genuine quality and it must be said if Ristovski had not so carelessly given the ball away in the first half, the result might have gone very differently.
Bruno Fernandes showed his quality despite the severe criticism he has faced over the course of his international career. Nuno Mendes was strong defensively and offered some good touches going forward.
Pepe was his old self, controlling the game from deep and putting in crucial challenges, especially in the second half. The visitors were organized throughout but failed to trouble Costa in goal.
Portugal will next travel to Spain in UEFA Nations League action on June 2nd.
by Nathan Motz
Portugal: Diogo Costa – Nuno Mendes, Danilo Pereira, Pepe, João Cancelo - Bernardo Silva (Felix, 87’), João Moutinho (Vitinha, 90’), Bruno Fernandes (Matheus, 87’), Otávio (William, 77’) - Diogo Jota (Rafael Leão, 77’), Cristiano Ronaldo
North Macedonia: Dimitrievski - Alioski, Musliu, Velkovski, S. Ristovski - Elmas, Bardhi, Ademi, Tihomir Kostadinov - M. Ristovski, Travjkovski
[1-0] – Bruno Fernandes, 32’
[2-0] – Bruno Fernandes, 65’