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Portugal’s path to World Cup blocked by surprise package North Macedonia

Portugal have been well and truly warned not to take the threat of North Macedonia lightly as they face Italy’s conquerors in a decisive World Cup qualifying play-off on Tuesday.

The Balkan nation stunned Italy in their play-off semi-final in Palermo on Thursday, winning 1-0 thanks to an Aleksandar Trajkovski goal in stoppage time, meaning the reigning European champions failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side, who preceded Italy as European champions in 2016, might have been bracing themselves for the prospect of a decisive showdown with the Azzurri but instead North Macedonia will be the visitors to the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, with the winners going to Qatar.

“At the moment football is different. Anybody can beat anybody. Names, numbers and statistics don’t matter,” warned veteran Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho when asked about facing the country of two million people ranked a modest 67th in the world.

“We have to show on the pitch that we have more quality and impose our own game.”

Portugal survived a scare to beat Turkey 3-1 in their semi-final, almost throwing away a two-goal lead as Burak Yilmaz missed a late penalty for the visitors before Matheus Nunes secured the hosts’ victory.

Fernando Santos’s team had already squandered first place in their qualifying group by conceding in the last minute to lose 2-1 at home to Serbia in November.

For Portugal, failing to qualify for the World Cup would be little short of a scandal given the quality in their ranks — Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix was only on the bench against Turkey, for example.

For Ronaldo, the all-time leading international goal-scorer at the age of 37, this will surely be his last World Cup if Portugal do get there.

They have veteran defender Pepe available again after a bout of Covid-19, while Joao Cancelo is also set to return.

“We have a responsibility to get to the World Cup so that means the pressure is there regardless of who we are playing. We know perfectly well that we have to be in Qatar,” said Manchester City star Bernardo Silva.

Portugal, who are set to be among the top seeds if they qualify, have not missed a World Cup since 1998, while Euro 2020 was the first major tournament appearance of any sort for North Macedonia.

They have already defeated Germany as well as Italy away in this campaign, while they drew 0-0 in a friendly on their one previous visit to Portugal, in 2012.

“We are well on our way to confirming why we are among the top 20 teams in Europe,” said their coach, Blagoja Milevski.

Poland and Sweden meet again

The other World Cup qualifying play-off final in Europe on Tuesday sees Poland host Sweden in the southern Polish city of Chorzow, with the Poles looking to end a run of six straight defeats against their opponents.

Poland, who finished second to England in their qualifying group, were given a bye to this game after scheduled semi-final opponents Russia were suspended from all international football until further notice following the invasion of Ukraine.

Sweden, quarter-finalists at the 2018 World Cup, beat the Czech Republic 1-0 in their semi-final with an extra-time Robin Quaison goal.

These sides met at Euro 2020 last June in Saint Petersburg, with Sweden scoring in injury time to win 3-2.

Robert Lewandowski’s brace had pulled Poland back to level terms after Emil Forsberg netted twice for Sweden, but Viktor Claesson then struck the winner.

Claesson, who left Russian club Krasnodar following the invasion of Ukraine, also started against the Czechs in the World Cup playoff.

Poland will be without striker Arkadiusz Milik after he suffered a hamstring injury in Thursday’s 1-1 friendly draw in Scotland.

Ten European sides have already clinched a place in Friday’s draw in Doha for the World Cup, with a total of three spots still up for grabs in the play-offs.

Wales will take part in the other play-off final but that is on hold until at least June because the war led to the postponement of Ukraine’s semi-final away to Scotland.

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