Italy, European champions, will miss the World Cup. Again.
The unthinkable happened in Palermo, Italy on Thursday as the Azzurri were beaten 1-0 by North Macedonia following a last-minute goal from Aleksandar Trajkovski in their semi-final playoffs.
Italy managed 32 shots on goal, against only four for their opponent. But it was Trajkovski’s effort from outside the box as the defenders closed in on him that made the difference.
It was the only real chance for North Macedonia after a completely dominating performance from Italy, who missed a number of chances and had several more saved by visiting keeper Stole Dimitrievski.
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But, just like five years ago, at the final whistle, the Italian players fell to the ground in disbelief and disappointment – with several of them in tears – as the opposition celebrated wildly.
Italy also failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden in a home-and-away game the previous November. Missing back-to-back World Cups is an unprecedented low point for the four-time champion, especially just months after winning Euro 2020.
“I’m proud of my team-mates, we’re all destroyed and broken but we have to start again,” Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini said. “For the moment it is difficult to talk about it, it will remain a big hole.
But Roberto Mancini, who took over as Italy manager after the latest qualifying failure, said on Thursday the disappointment “was too great to talk about the future”.
“I think just as last July was the best thing I’ve experienced professionally, it’s the biggest disappointment,” Mancini added.
“Football is like that, sometimes incredible things happen.”
Italy’s missed opportunities
North Macedonia will face Portugal on Tuesday for a place in the tournament in Qatar after Cristiano Ronaldo’s side beat Turkey 3-1. Euro 2020 is the only major tournament for which North Macedonia has qualified.
Mancini was missing a number of players who helped Italy win the European Championship last summer and had to field a makeshift defense, but he was barely troubled by North Macedonia until the very end.
Italy got off to an aggressive start but struggled to find a way past the red jersey wall.
The Azzurri had a big chance in the 30th minute after a gruesome kick from the North Macedonia keeper left Domenico Berardi with an open goal, but he missed his shot and Dimitrievski came back in time to make the ‘stop.
Italy closed in and Dimitrievski had to make another save, this time to trap Lorenzo Insigne’s shot around the post.
North Macedonia made their first attempt at half-time when Enis Bardi sent a ball past Trajkovski, but his effort went straight for Giangluigi Donnarumma.
Berardi nearly atoned for his first-half mistake early in the second half, but saw off a well-saved attempt by Dimitrievski and curled another just past the left post.
Italy besieged the goal but saw everything charged by North Macedonia.
And he was forced to pay for his profligacy in stoppage time as Trajkovski fired a low shot into the bottom left corner from 25 yards out, leaving Mancini looking stunned on the touchline.