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North Macedonia ready to make Ronaldo work for World Cup place
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Ben Spratt
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North Macedonia supporters in Palermo for the win over Italy
North Macedonia supporters in Palermo for the win over Italy

North Macedonia have already pulled off perhaps the greatest shock in World Cup qualifying history, so they are entering Tuesday's play-off against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal with no fear.

An incredible qualification campaign – in which they won away in Germany in Group J – continued for North Macedonia when they defeated Italy in last week's play-off semi-final.

That set up yet another away trip against an elite side, with the relative minnows now visiting Portugal for a place at Qatar 2022.

As Selecao talisman Ronaldo, now 37, is potentially bidding to play at his last World Cup – although he insists he will make that call – there is far more pressure on the hosts than on North Macedonia.

Coach Blagoja Milevski explained: "I don't think anyone would ever have expected that North Macedonia, as a country, as a national team, [would make it this far].

"Compared to the other participants in our group in this play-off, we are very small and that's why nobody expected North Macedonia to be in this position of being able to play in the final of this play-off and go to the World Cup.

"So, let's not run away from this opportunity. We are in a good position and I have only one message: to enjoy the moment and make the most of this opportunity to play against a great team."

Milevski knows Portugal are still the favourites, but that does not concern him.

"Of course we know who the favourites are. We know that according to everything that has happened, Portugal are the favourites," he said.

"But North Macedonia are not here by coincidence, we have our qualities and it was precisely these qualities that put us in the group of the best 20 at the European level. And so I think we have to see what happens."

Portugal required a play-off to qualify in both 2010 and 2014 – the latter seeing Ronaldo score all four goals of a 4-2 aggregate win over Sweden.

Those goals contribute to a world-record international tally of 115, but Milevski suggests North Macedonia cannot afford to focus on Ronaldo alone.

"Regarding Cristiano Ronaldo, I think we are talking about someone who has been the best player in the world for several years," the coach said.

"But we will not just play against him. There are 10 other players who play with him. Portugal is not just Ronaldo.

"Although he is sensational, there are other extraordinary players. And therefore, we will focus on the team as a whole and not just on an individual."


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