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North Macedonia will be looking to do more than just make up the numbers
North Macedonia will be looking to do more than just make up the numbers

Regardless of what happens at Euro 2020, North Macedonia have already made history.

Traditionally one of the continent’s minnows, the Balkan nation will be competing in their first European Championship as an independent country — qualifying via the play-offs after a successful 2018-19 Nations League campaign.

Progressing from a group containing the Netherlands, Ukraine and Austria would be a remarkable achievement, with simply remaining competitive in games a more realistic aspiration.

Background

While this is the first major tournament in their 27 years as an independent nation, North Macedonia have never been the cannon fodder that some other smaller sides have been in European football.

They recorded memorable draws against England in the mid-noughties, as well as a 2-0 victory over Croatia when they were ranked in the world's top 10.

Despite some struggles in the early stages of the last decade, players such as Leeds ace Ezgjan Alioski have fired them to new heights.

How they qualified

North Macedonia finished behind Poland and Austria in qualifying, taking third in Group G ahead of Slovenia, Israel and Latvia.

They won four and lost four of their 10 matches, with the team’s inconsistent form largely down to their struggles in front of goal — their 12-goal tally was the second lowest in the group.

The Lions finished qualification strongly, winning five of their last seven, but still needed a Nations League play-off against Georgia to make it through to the finals.

Former Inter Milan striker Goran Pandev came up with the goods in that match, scoring the only goal in Tbilisi to secure hero status and send his country to Euro 2020.

Goran Pandev scored seven Serie A goals for Genoa in 2020-21
Goran Pandev scored seven Serie A goals for Genoa in 2020-21

The line-up

Something of a rogue tactician, coach Igor Angelovski will go with a 3-4-1-2 system.

It is aimed at getting the best out of key man Alioski, who plays at left wing-back and allows North Macedonia to get a foothold as they progress up the pitch.

That is something of a high-risk strategy and can be countered by shutting off the space out wide for both Alioski and Dinamo Zagreb’s Stefan Ristovski on the other flank. 

Young playmaker Elif Elmas roams the midfield and helps link the wing-backs with Pandev and Aleksandar Trajkovski up front.

Predicted line-up: Dimitrievski; Bejtulai, Musliu, Velkovski; Nikolov, Ademi; S.Ristovski, Elmas, Alioski; Pandev, Trajkovski.

Star player: Ezgjan Alioski

English football fans will be fully aware of Alioski’s quality — he caught the eye with an impressive first season in the Premier League for Leeds.

Marcelo Bielsa’s side utilise the flanks in a similar way to North Macedonia but are much more proficient in attack than the left-sided star’s national team.

Alioski, 29, is often more disciplined when playing for his country but is certainly no less influential. 

Tactically, the line-up is set up to get the best from him.

Up-and-comer: Eljif Elmas

Eljif Elmas was effective on the left flank for Napoli in 2020-21
Eljif Elmas was effective on the left flank for Napoli in 2020-21

Napoli midfielder Elmas is certainly going to be one to watch this summer.

The 21-year-old joined the Serie A giants from Fenerbahce just shy of two years ago and has featured regularly since arriving in Naples.

Elmas is a key part of North Macedonia’s attacking threat and combines well with the team’s wide players in a freer role than for the Partenopei.

He was inside Serie A’s top 20 players when it came to passing accuracy in 2020-21 with 90.78%, so will be vital to the his side's chances of retaining the ball.

The boss: Igor Angelovski

Angelovski, 44, will be among the youngest coaches on show at Euro 2020. 

He has been in charge of North Macedonia for six years, having served his apprenticeship as assistant to Ljubinko Drulovic, and has transformed his nation’s prospects.

Reaching Euro 2020 is the highlight of the manager’s achievements to date but World Cup qualification has also started in impressive fashion — North Macedonia have won two of their three matches, including a stunning 2-1 victory against Germany.

Macedonians will be hoping he can mastermind a few more shocks at the European Championship.

All information correct as of midday, June 3, 2021

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