North Macedonia forward Aleksandar Trajkovski is hoping to enjoy something close to home advantage when his team face Italy in Palermo on Thursday in the World Cup play-offs.
Trajkovski played for Palermo for four years until 2019. He also scored in a surprise 1-1 draw against Italy in Turin during 2018 World Cup qualifying.
The draw cost Italy two vital points in their failed quest to reach the World Cup in Russia, marking the first time the nation had missed the tournament in six decades.
Trajkovski remembers that match vividly, when he quietened the home crowd with a close-range effort in the second half.
“I hope that if that goal repeats, it will be for a victory,” he tells AFP.
“I was really happy when I saw that we will play in Palermo because I will go back to a city where I have spent four years. We have to be maximally motivated to get a good result,” the 29-year-old forward adds.
Trajkovski however is well aware that North Macedonia will be playing a very different Italian team this week, now sixth in the FIFA rankings and the reigning European champions.
North Macedonia will also have to overcome significant absences, including the losses of Napoli’s Elif Elmas and midfielder Tihomir Kostadinov due to suspension.
But coach Bobi Milevski remains confident about their chances, following North Macedonia’s debut at the European Championship last year.
“We are not going to Italy as tourists, but to outplay (them) and to win,” Milevski told reporters.
He believes his team has the skills and determination needed to upset the Italians, who lost in the 2018 play-offs to Sweden.
“Our optimism is based on facts. I very well know and see how our players are behaving. I would be glad if they underestimate us. But, these guys showed that they are capable of great things,” said Milevski.
North Macedonia are looking to reach the World Cup for the first time.
The Balkan nation of just two million competed in its first international match in 1993 following the republic’s independence from the former Yuglosavia.
Despite their relative inexperience on the international stage, the team have enjoyed some excellent recent results, including a remarkable qualifying win over Germany last year in Duisburg.
The winners of Thursday’s game will play either Portugal or Turkey next week for a place in Qatar later this year.