Italy will be aiming to book their ticket to the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers playoff final when they take on North Macedonia on Thursday.

The footballing world is gearing up for the latest international break of 2022, with few of the European nations set to battle it out for a place in the finals of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

UEFA Euro 2020 champions Italy are among the nations vying for a spot after finishing second in their group behind Switzerland. The underwhelming qualifying campaign has now forced Roberto Mancini’s men to battle it out for their participation in the coveted competition.

Italy start their playoff campaign on Thursday with a game against North Macedonia at Renzo Barbera Stadium in Palermo. Despite the home advantage, it is a tricky game for the Gli Azzurri, who had dropped points against the likes of Northern Ireland and Bulgaria during their group qualifying stage.

North Macedonia are a daunting opponent, who had finished second behind Germany in Group J. They had finished ahead of established nations such as Romania and Iceland and had even beaten Germany once.

The winner of this tie will qualify for the playoff final against either Portugal or Turkey, who play each other on the same day at the iconic Estadio do Dragao.

Team News & Tactics

Italy

Italy had confirmed that Mattia De Sciglio had replaced Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who had to withdraw through injury. It should be inconsequential to Roberto Mancini’s team selection, though, with the former Manchester City boss likely to field a full-strength starting eleven.

Tactically, Italy could line up with a 4-3-3 setup that Mancini has often preferred during his reign. The centre-back slots could automatically go to the seniormost duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, although Mancini may entertain the idea of starting with a far younger alternative in Alessandro Bastoni.

Alessandro Florenzi and Emerson Palmieri remain the two favourites to occupy the full-back slots. As for the midfield, Mancini should retain his faith in Jorginho, who could hold the fort in the number six slot, with Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti offering creativity in the middle of the park.

Mancini has no shortage of alternatives, though, with Manuel Locatelli pushing for a place in the starting eleven, perhaps at the expense of Jorginho, while Sandro Tonali could be another exciting option.

The Italy head coach has a selection dilemma in the attack. The proven attackers have all struggled with form, while the in-form ones lack experience. But with Italy traditionally being a conservative side, we can expect Ciro Immobile to be deployed upfront, ahead of Gianluca Scamacca, whereas Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi remain the favourites to occupy the wide attacking roles.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Florenzi, Bonucci, Bastoni, Emerson; Barella, Jorginho, Verratti; Berardi, Immobile, Insigne

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North Macedonia

North Macedonia have done well under the leadership of Blagoja Milevski, who typically seems to favour a traditional 4-2-3-1, which can effortlessly turn into a 4-3-3 and mirror Italy’s formation, if necessary.

It isn’t too hard to predict Macedonia’s starting eleven either, given that the defence also picks itself. There is no looking past Stole Dimitrievski in goal, while North Macedonia do not have any other reliable set of full-backs other than Stefan Ristovski and former Leeds United star Ezgjan Alioski.

The central defensive combination should see Darko Velkovski pair up with Visar Musliu as they look to provide cover for goalkeeper Dimitrievski.

Things get interesting in midfield, where Arijan Ademi and Enis Bardhi are almost guaranteed starters due to their hard-working nature and the ability to stick to their markers. They are likely to be partnered by Boban Nikolov, although the more attack-minded Eljif Elmas is another option.

As for the attack, this is where North Macedonia lack some firepower. Milan Ristovski is not a top striker by any means, but he will be tasked with the responsibility of spearheading the frontline, with the help of Aleksandar Trajkovski and Darko Churlinov.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Dimitrievski; S. Ristovski, Velkovski, Musliu, Alioski; Nikolov, Ademi, Bardhi; Churlinov, M. Ristovski, Trajkovski

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Key Stats

  • Italy and North Macedonia had met each other only twice before in an international competition. Both came in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
  • Italy’s last game against North Macedonia at home ended in a 1-1 draw, with Trajkovski scoring a late equaliser to cancel out Chiellini’s goal.
  • North Macedonia had claimed 18 points during their qualifying campaign, finishing ahead of third-placed Romania only by a point.
  • If Italy are defeated in this tie, they could miss out on qualification for the FIFA World Cup for the second time in a row, after missing the 2018 edition in Russia.
  • North Macedonia, on the other hand, are only two wins away from qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since their independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Player to Watch

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Ready for a new challenge and leave AC Milan? (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

A man under pressure. (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty Images)

Gianluigi Donnarumma is under the cosh at the moment following a few poor performances for Paris Saint-Germain in goal. He was involved in the debacle against Real Madrid, committing the error that led to an extraordinary comeback from Los Blancos.

While the Italian was omitted from the starting eleven in the game against Bordeaux, he returned to the setup against AS Monaco, conceding three goals as PSG lost the game 3-0. Donnarumma should have done much better in goal, including the attempted save on Wissam Ben Yedder’s late penalty.

Given how he has performed for PSG, the onus will be on Donnarumma to silence his critics with a solid display in goal this midweek. He will need to remain alert throughout the ninety minutes and avoid making any defensive errors if Italy are to qualify for the playoff final.

Prediction

Italy 1-0 North Macedonia

In North Macedonia, Italy could find themselves a challenging opponent who are more than capable of defending doggedly and making life difficult for the opposition attackers with their organisation at the back. They can be quite deadly on the counter as well, though the retirement of veteran frontman Goran Pandev will surely be telling.

In fact, this could be a low-scoring game as neither Italy, nor North Macedonia’s attackers have shown a great deal of form in club competitions. We still expect the Azzurri to sneak a victory, though, thanks to a superior team and the home support behind them.

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