Italy’s chances of defending their European Championship crown suffered a blow on Saturday after a 1-1 away draw at North Macedonia in Euro 2024 qualifying.
Enis Bardhi smashed in a free-kick for the hosts with nine minutes remaining in the Group C clash in Skopje on Luciano Spalletti’s debut as Azzurri coach.
Spalletti took charge of the national team last month following Roberto Mancini’s shock resignation and his team flopped against the side which dumped Italy out of the last World Cup in the play-offs.
Italy, who scored through Ciro Immobile, sit third in the group on four points following the third match of their qualifying campaign.
They are nine points behind leaders England who have played two more games and were held to a 1-1 draw by second-placed Ukraine earlier on Saturday.
Spalletti’s side are three points behind Ukraine with the pair facing off at the San Siro on Tuesday night, a crucial fixture for each side’s hopes of claiming one of two automatic spots for next summer’s tournament in Germany.
“The team played OK. We didn’t concede much and we got into positions where we could created chances,” said Spalletti to broadcaster RAI.
“People watch Italy from all over the world, they are the ones who can judge us from what they have seen.”
North Macedonia sit fourth and level on points with Italy after a rugged performance from a team which came into Saturday’s fixture deep in crisis.
Blagoja Milevski’s side have won just four times since their stunning victory in Palermo in March last year, a win which sent Italy into a tailspin less than a year after winning the last European Championship.
Captain Stefan Ristovski refuses to play for Milevski whose position has been called into question after a run of negative results including a 7-0 hammering by England.
“When things go this way all we can do is look to Tuesday night as it’s a massive game for us,” said Immobile to Rai.
Missing injured Juventus forward Federico Chiesa, Italy struggled to play entertaining football on a dreadful pitch at the Tose Proeski Arena, and while they had most of the ball in the first half they created very little.
The best chance of the opening 45 minutes fell to Sandro Tonali, who was unlucky to see his finish smash out off the inside of the post after being clipped through one-on-one with Stole Dimitrievski by Immobile.
But Immobile, who has been made captain by Spalletti, put the away side ahead a minute after the restart when, after Nicolo Barella looped a shot off the crossbar, the Lazio striker nodded in on the rebound.
However instead of building on that strong start to the half Italy lost their way.
And Bardhi made sure the hosts punished their opponents with a rocket of a shot which flashed past Gianluigi Donnarumma and left Spalletti with plenty of questions to answer.