Kosovo’s Euro dream shattered by North Macedonia
Kosovo’s dream of qualifying for Euro 2020, less than five years after being accepted into international football, ended with a 2-1 away defeat by neighbours North Macedonia on Thursday.
Darko Velkovski’s 33rd-minute header won the semi-final playoff for the hosts, who are themselves aiming to qualify for the first major tournament in the team’s 27-year history. They face Georgia next month for a place in next year’s tournament.
Kosovo’s players collapsed onto the pitch in anguish as the final whistle blew, while home team coach Igor Angelovski rushed onto the field carrying a Macedonian flag.
Despite an outpouring of emotions after steering North Macedonia to a shot at reaching their first major tournament as an independent nation, Angelovsk warned his players to keep their feet on the ground.
“We are euphoric right now and we deserve to celebrate, but we must also keep in mind that we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” he was quoted as saying by the Balkan nation’s media.
“We can celebrate tonight but it’s back to work tomorrow because we don’t have much time to prepare for the crunch game against Georgia.”
Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was finally accepted as a member of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, and world soccer organisation FIFA, in 2016 after a long campaign.
They enjoyed a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run in 2018-19 to win their Nations League group and qualify for the playoffs which offer a back door to the Euros.
Given a rousing send-off by flag-waving supporters who also let off firecrackers when they left Pristina for the 90-kilometre road trip to Skopje on Wednesday, Kosovo were missing key players and it proved a bridge too far.
Their Napoli defender Amir Rrahmani was not released after his club’s squad were ordered to isolate following two positive COVID-19 tests while midfielders Hekuran Kryeziu and Milot Rashica plus striker Vedat Muriqi were injured.
North Macedonia were without Elif Elmas who was also among the Napoli players to test positive for coronavirus.
Kosovo made a bright start but fell behind in cruel fashion when Stefan Ristovski’s mis-hit shot deflected off defender Benjamin Kololli and crept inside the post for an own goal after 16 minutes.
But the visitors capitalised on a defensive mishap to level in the 29th. North Macedonia goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski charged out of his area to clear but lost possession and Florent Hadergjonaj chipped the ball into the net from 25 metres.
The hosts regained the lead four minutes later when Velkovski rose to head in from a free kick.
The second half was increasingly scrappy, although Kosovo nearly snatched a stoppage-time equaliser when Fidan Aliti’s shot was blocked by Dimitrievski at point-blank range.
Serbia sink Norway as Scots and Northern Ireland also reach Euro playoff finals
Serbia reached the Euro 2020 playoff finals after a double from second-half substitute Sergej-Milinkovic Savic gave them a 2-1 win away to Norway after extra time on Thursday while seven other nations joined them on a night of nerve-wracking action.
Scotland will face the Serbians in Belgrade on Nov. 12 for a berth at next year’s tournament to be held across Europe following a 5-3 penalty shootout win at home to Israel as the game finished 0-0 after extra time.
Northern Ireland beat Bosnia 4-3 on penalties after holding them to a 1-1 draw in regular time, with no goals in the extra period, and they will host Slovakia, who needed a 4-2 shootout win over visitors Ireland following a 0-0 draw after extra time.
Serbia’s Lazio midfielder Milinkovic-Savic scored his first international goals as he fired the visitors ahead in the 82nd minute with his first touch of the ball.
Norway’s Mathias Normann equalised in the 88th with a crisp low shot before Milinkovic-Savic struck in the first period of extra time with a sublime finish, dinking the ball over goalkeeper Rune Jarstein from a tight angle.
“I am still pinching myself as I scored my first goal for Serbia and then the second in a game as big as this one too,” Milinkovic-Savic told Serbian media.
“It will be a joyous trip back to Serbia but we know the job is not done yet and we’ve got an even bigger game ahead of us.”
Israel’s Eran Zahavi missed his side’s first penalty while the Scots were perfect from the spot, having soaked up pressure before hitting the woodwork in the dying seconds of extra time.
Rade Krunic put Bosnia in the driving seat with a 13th-minute goal but Niall McGinn hit back for Northern Ireland, robbing two defenders of the ball before steering a low shot past keeper Ibrahim Scekic in the 53rd.
Both sides missed chances before the shootout, with Liam Boyce drilling in Northern Ireland’s final spot kick to put them through after Bosnia’s Haris Hajradinovic and Edin Visca missed.
Goals from Willi Orban, Zsolt Kalmar and Nemanja Nikolic gave the Hungarians a 3-1 win in Bulgaria and booked a home tie with Iceland, who were 2-1 winners at home to Romania thanks to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s first-half double.
North Macedonia overcame Balkan neighbours Kosovo 2-1 and will visit Georgia, who beat Belarus 1-0 thanks to an early Tornike Okriashvili penalty, with the winners of their playoff set for a maiden major tournament as an independent nation.
There were joyous scenes in Skopje, where North Macedonia edged Kosovo in an emotionally charged encounter, with home coach Igor Angelovski rushing onto the field with a Macedonian flag after the final whistle.
Kosovo, a country of 1.8 million people which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was accepted as a member of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, and then world soccer organisation FIFA, in 2016 after a long campaign.
They enjoyed a remarkable 15-match unbeaten run in 2018-19 to win their Nations League group and qualify for the playoffs, which offer a back door to the European Championship.
Euro 2020, originally scheduled for June 12-July 12, was pushed back 12 months because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and is now due to be held from June 11-July 11 next year.