We expected Italy in World Cup playoff


Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho has said the side expected to play Italy to claim a spot at the 2022 World Cup.

Portugal, who overcame Turkey 3-1 on Thursday, instead host North Macedonia in Tuesday’s playoff final at Porto’s Dragao stadium (live on ESPN+, 2.45pm ET) after the side claimed a shock 1-0 win over the Euro 2020 champions.

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“Won’t lie to you: we were all expecting it was going to be Italy,” Moutinho told a news conference.

“Football is different nowadays, every team can win at this level, doesn’t matter the names, numbers or stats. North Macedonia have an extraordinary core and will do their best to make our life miserable on Tuesday.”

Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva said that Portugal’s players feel a collective responsibility to claim a spot for the country at the tournament in Qatar.

“The responsibility of being present at the World Cup means that, regardless of the opponent, we have this pressure,” Silva said.

“The pressure exists in that sense, and we accept it, and it would be the same against Italy, [North] Macedonia or anyone else. We are used to pressure at our clubs.”

Euro 2016 winners Portugal have qualified for the last five World Cup finals while North Macedonia’s first major tournament in their 27-year history was last year’s Euro 2020.

Even so, Silva expects North Macedonia to be an enormous challenge.

“Of course, having players with experience in decisive games helps,” the Manchester City midfielder said. “But the fact that they haven’t played as many games like these also makes their motivation levels higher.”

North Macedonia have already demonstrated they are dangerous when playing away from home.

The team ended Germany’s unbeaten 20-year home run in World Cup qualifying with a 2-1 win last year and also eliminated Euro 2020 holders Italy on Thursday.

“North Macedonia have won four of their last five away games, two of them against two of the best teams in the world [Germany and Italy],” Silva said.

“Let’s do our homework, see what the coach’s plan is and try to follow it in the best way, knowing that teams are different and will demand for different things.”

Portugal boasts a strong attacking line led by Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo while against Italy, North Macedonia had only two shots on goal, including Aleksandar Trajkovski’s 92nd minute winner.

“We are a team that creates many chances,” Silva said. “We also know that we need to control the counterattacks, and the best way to do that is by moving the ball well.

“We know that if they’ve come this far it’s because they deserve to be here. Just as they had the ability to beat Germany and Italy, it shows that they are defensively strong, even with these statistics [few chances]. We know that we have a difficult task ahead of us, but we will do our best to overcome an opponent that we know will create some difficulties.

“It’s 90 minutes, anything can happen, and we’re sure it will be very difficult.

“We need to go to the game with the same idea and all rowing in the same direction. I’m sure things will go well.”

Portugal have received good news ahead of the encounter with veteran defender Pepe joining the team in training on Sunday following his recovery from COVID-19.