While Ethan Ampadu's Wales march on in World Cup qualifying, there was a shock defeat for European champions Italy as the first international action of 2022 got underway with plenty of drama...
Eight months after securing Euro 2020 glory at Wembley, there was heartbreak for Italy as they failed to reach the World Cup finals for the second time in a row following a crushing home defeat at the hands of North Macedonia.
Jorginho and Emerson Palmieri were in the starting line-up for the Azzurri on an incredibly frustrating night in Palermo, with Roberto Mancini’s men dominant throughout but ultimately lacking that cutting edge in attack.
Emerson had the first effort of the game after three minutes but fired over on his right side and that set the tone for an evening of profligacy and pain. They had 15 attempts and nine corners in the first half but rarely troubled Stole Dimitrievski between the posts for North Macedonia.
Domenico Berardi fashioned the best opportunity of the first 45 minutes, latching onto a misplaced clearance from Dimitrievski, but his left-footed strike lacked the power to punish the goalkeeper’s mistake.
The majority of Italy’s efforts came from distance, underlining the effectiveness of North Macedonia in protecting their 18-yard box and forcing their hosts into speculative shots. Their track record should not have surprised onlookers given a creditable recent showing at Euro 2020 and their shock 2-1 win away in Germany earlier in the qualification campaign.
Jorginho played his usual metronomic role in central midfield, registering the third-highest amount of successful passes of any player on the pitch and the second-highest number of key passes, but Italy’s issues came not in progressing play but in creating and converting clear-cut chances. Meanwhile, Emerson ended up operating as an auxiliary winger, playing higher than almost any Italy player down the left flank.
Even as time ebbed away for Mancini’s men, it still seemed like it would be a case of when not if they forced a breakthrough, even if that might require extra-time. That was until the second minute of stoppage time when Aleksandar Trajkovski, the 29-year-old who actually had a trial with the Chelsea Academy back in 2010, struck what will go down as a famous winner.
A long goal-kick forward was won bravely in the air by Bojan Miovski and Trajkovski, who had endured a thankless task up front all night, did the rest by burying an incredible finish past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Cue the most incredible celebrations on the field and in the stands among the small band of travelling supporters as their unfancied nation, ranked 67th in the world, move to within a game of football’s showpiece global tournament. All that remains for them to overcome is a trip to Portugal next week.
Wales move closer
Wales are bidding to reach a World Cup tournament for the first time in 64 years and that quest continues to one final play-off match after they beat Austria 2-1 in Cardiff.
Ethan Ampadu has gained experience in the full gamut of defensive roles on loan in Italy with Venezia this season and that versatility was put to good use again by boss Rob Page, who started the 21-year-old on the right of a back three.
He was faced up against the likes of Bayern Munich’s Marcel Sabitzer and Marko Arnautovic, formerly of West Ham and Stoke City, but handled the challenge well in a resilient rearguard display.
The Welsh got off to a perfect start as Gareth Bale stepped into the talismanic shoes he has worn so often for the national team, firing a breathtaking free-kick right into the top corner to open the scoring midway through the first half.
Remarkably, this was just the Real Madrid forward’s eighth start of the season for club and country, an equal split between our Champions League quarter-final opponents and his nation. It was also his first goal since a hat-trick against Belarus back in September earned an important victory on the qualifying journey.
Bale didn’t have to wait long to add to that tally though, latching onto a loose ball in the box following a corner and lashing a fine strike past the goalkeeper. Wales had earlier rode their luck when Christoph Baumgartner hit the crossbar inside the opening five minutes and their visitors continued to believe, reducing the deficit with 25 minutes remaining when Sabitzer’s effort deflected in off the unfortunate Ben Davies.
The hosts had to dig deep, Ampadu disciplined and plugging gaps among a back three that understandably retreated towards their own goal as the clock ticked down. The final whistle was greeted with a raucous roar in the Welsh capital and the celebrations could begin as the Dragons move to within a game of the World Cup later this year. They will host either Scotland or Ukraine in June for that right.
Gilmour's busy game
Billy Gilmour started in Glasgow as Scotland drew 1-1 with Poland in a friendly. Steve Clarke’s side had been due to face Ukraine in the first of their own play-off games but that had been postponed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In response, much of the ticket proceeds from this match will be donated to humanitarian efforts in response to the ongoing war.
Playing in a central midfield role, Gilmour earned his 11th cap for the national team three months prior to his 21st birthday. Only three other players have played more games before that milestone in the history of the Scottish national team.
Nevertheless, the youngster displayed maturity against a Poland side that will host Sweden in their play-off final next week having been handed a bye due to Russia’s expulsion from qualifying. Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney had the Tartan Army celebrating with his first international goal after 68 minutes, heading in a set-piece delivery from John McGinn.
Gilmour had been involved down both ends before the opener, testing visiting keeper Lukasz Skorupski in the first half before brilliantly clearing off the line from Fiorentina’s Krzysztof Piatek, the man who eventually equalised from the penalty spot in stoppage time to deny Scotland a seventh consecutive win.
Younger age groups
Harvey Vale captained England Under-19s to a victory over their counterparts from Republic of Ireland on Wednesday evening, a game in which fellow Blues Xavier Simons and Bashir Humphreys also featured from the bench.
Vale, who has five appearances for the senior Chelsea side this term, wore the captain's armband and started on the left flank, claiming an assist for Dane Scarlett's opener in a 3-1 win as the young Lions began the latest stage of their European qualification campaign with three points. Aston Villa's Carney Chukwuemeka got the other goals, while Teddy Sharman-Lowe was an unused substitute.