North Macedonia oust Italy; Portugal, Wales, Sweden advance

Sports Desk, Mar 24 (EFE).- Four-time World Cup champions Italy will miss the tournament after falling 1-0 to North Macedonia in Thursday’s playoff semifinal and the Balkan side will face Portugal for one of the three remaining European berths.

Sweden needed extra time to get past the Czech Republic 1-0 and will square off next Tuesday with Poland, who got a semifinal bye thanks to the expulsion of Russia, while Wales topped Austria 2-1 to set up a clash with Ukraine, postponed until June because of the Russian invasion.

The Azzurri embarked on a rebuilding program after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and set a new record for longest unbeaten streak on their way to winning the Euro Cup last summer.

But Roberto Mancini’s men have struggled since then and Italy must reckon with going at least eight years between World Cup appearances for the first time.

The hosts dominated possession and outshot North Macedonia 32-4, yet they failed to put the ball past goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski and Aleksandar Trajkovski, a former Palermo player, broke the deadlock in the 92nd minute and Italy suffered their first home loss in 60 World Cup qualifiers.

In Porto, Portugal led Turkey 2-0 at the break on goals by Otavio and Diogo Jota.

With 25 minutes left, Burak Yilmaz scored to bring Turkey back into the match and he was poised to equalize from the spot in the 85th, only to send his penalty over the cross-bar.

Matheus Nunes scored in stoppage time to settle the nerves of the Portugal supporters.

Despite playing only five of 40 matches for Real Madrid this season, Gareth Bale was in fine form Thursday against Austria, scoring a brace as Wales prevailed 2-1.

Bale electrified the crowd at Cardiff City Stadium with a stupendous free-kick in the 25th minute and then doubled the lead six minutes into the second half.

Marcel Sabitzer clawed back a goal for Austria in the 64th minute, thanks to a deflection off Welsh defender Ben Davies, but the Dragons held on to win and give themselves a chance to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

The Czechs thought they had taken an early lead against Sweden in Stockholm, but the goal was disallowed for a foul and with few solid opportunities at either end, the sides completed 90 minutes plus stoppage time without a result.

Five minutes into the second extra-time period, Robin Quaison scored to put Sweden in next Tuesday’s final against Poland. EFE id/dr

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