Semi-finals: Portugal 3-1 Turkey
Italy 0-1 North Macedonia
Final: Portugal 2-0 North Macedonia
Last Tuesday night’s much-anticipated play-off final in Porto between Portugal and Italy – with only the winners securing one of the last available berths at the world’s premier football tournament due to take place between November 21 and December 18 later this year – did not materialise following the reigning ‘Azzuri’ European Champions’ shock home defeat to unfancied North Macedonia.
The Italians, who had dazzled Wembley at the Euros only last summer but had previously also failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, laid siege to the Macedonian goal throughout the match without scoring and were duly punished when Aleksandar Trajkovski’s speculative injury time effort found the back of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s net.
In contrast, Portugal’s score line against Turkey looked good but was ultimately flattering, Ronaldo and company struggling to keep the visitors at bay following Otávio’s early opener before Diogo Jota made it two without reply at the interval. Burak Yilmaz then pulled one back in the 65th minute and should have levelled the score not long after but blasted his penalty kick over the bar. Matheus finally made the game safe in injury time.
That left Portugal unexpectedly facing North Macedonia at the Estádio do Dragão, on paper a much more straightforward task than the previously dreaded do-or-die clash with Italy – and so it turned out. Veteran national team manager Fernando Santos’ men dominated proceedings throughout with Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes scoring either side of half time while keeper Diogo Costa was never troubled by the visitors who always struggled to gain a foothold.
Thus, Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be taking part in his fifth World Cup finals, are on their way to Qatar – the draw for the group stage, appropriate for a tournament which will be played in winter in the desert, will take place this Friday, April 1.
By SKIP BANDELE