13 June – Austria (4pm GMT, Arena Națională, Bucharest)
17 June – Ukraine (1pm GMT, Arena Națională, Bucharest)
21 June – Netherlands (4 pm GMT, Johan Cruijff ArenA, Amsterdam)
After taking advantage of the new Nations League route to the finals, North Macedonia are expected to be the whipping boy in Group C. As Owen Diana writes, that lack of pressure makes the Lynxes a dangerous foe.
Macedonians Playing with House Money
After Iceland shocked the world by reaching the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, North Macedonia are set to be this edition’s Cinderella story. The former Yugoslav republic is the smallest country in the field (population of 2.06 million), and they are also the lowest-ranked side according to FIFA (62). Moreover, they are participating in their first major tournament since they began to compete as a sovereign nation in 1993.
Nevertheless, a surprise success over mighty Germany back in March shows that the Lynxes cannot be taken lightly. Die Mannschaft had not lost a World Cup Qualifier on home soil since September 2001, but they were undone by goals from Goran Pandev and Eljif Elmas.
Those two Serie A stars are the key men in this Macedonia team. Pandev is his country’s all-time leader in caps (114) and goals (36), while Elmas was the top scorer in the qualifiers for this summer’s showpiece (4).
The Italian connection extends beyond that dynamic duo, however. Midfield stalwart Boban Nikolov is at Lecce, while centre-forward Aleksandar Trajkovski spent five years at Palermo.
Udinese hitman Illja Nestorovski would also be in the squad were it not for an ACL tear suffered in a training session with Le Zebrette in mid-April, and that untimely injury could provoke a tactical re-think from manager Igor Angelovski. Pandev has often played as a second striker for the 44-year-old coach, but he could be fielded as a lone frontman this summer.
In defence, Angelovski has favoured a back three of late, with that setup deployed in Duisburg and during the decisive playoff victory over Georgia. That strategy would offer maximum protection to a backline that is sure to come under heavy fire and also accentuate the attacking ability of Leeds left-back Ezgjan Alioski.
The debutants will have a tough time making it out of a group containing Austria, Ukraine and the Netherlands, with four points likely needed to secure safe passage. It is difficult to envision anything but a defeat against the Dutch in Amsterdam so that everything will come down to the first two matches.
Both of those battles will take place in Bucharest, with Austria first up on the docket. Franco Foda’s charges are a far cry from the Wunderteam that captivated the continent during the 1930s, but they boast world-class quality in the shape of David Alaba and RB Leipzig linchpin Marcel Sabitzer. Moreover, they collected two wins over the Macedonians during the qualifiers for this tournament.
A talented Ukraine team are up next after that crunch clash. The yellow and blues finished top of a group that included Portugal and Serbia to book their ticket to the main event, and they will hope to continue that fine form on the big stage.
As their triumph over Germany proved, the Lynxes are capable of leaving anyone in the lurch when they are at their best. If they are at the top of their game from the word go this month, anything is possible. A group stage exit is still the most probable outcome, but that would be no shame for a side with little to lose.
Coach: Igor Angelovski – He might be an unknown quantity outside of his homeland, but that hasn’t stopped this former midfielder from leading the Lynxes to a first-ever major tournament. In charge since October 2015, Angelovski will hope that the familiarity between players and manager makes a difference this summer.
Preferred XI: Dimitrevski, Ristovski, Musliu, Velovski, Nikolov, Alioski, Ademi, Bardhi, Elmas, Pandev, Trajkovski
Look Out For: Not just Pandev – Macedonia’s opponents must make sure not to give away too many fouls near their own box. Levante midfielder Enis Bardhi is renowned as a dead ball specialist, with seven goals from direct free-kicks since joining the Spanish club in 2017.
North Macedonia Euro 2020 squad
Goalkeepers: Stole Dimitrievski (Rayo Vallecano), Damjan Sikovski (Doxa), Risto Jankov (Rabotnicki)
Defenders: Stefan Ristovksi (Dinamo), Darko Velkovski (Rijeka), Visar Musliu (Fehervar), Gjanni Alioski (Leeds United), Egzon Bejtulai (Shkendija), Kire Ristevski (Ujpest), Gjoko Zajkov (Charleroi)
Midfielders: Arijan Ademi (Dinamo), Boban Nikolov (Lecce), Enis Bardhi (Levante), Elif Elmas (Napoli), Stefan Spirovski (Larnaca), Tihomir Kostadinov (Ruzomberok), Ferhan Hasani (Partizani), Daniel Avramovski (Kayserispor), Marijan Radeski (Akademija Pandev)
Forwards: Goran Pandev (Genoa), Aleks Trajkovski (Mallorca), Ivan Trickovski (Larnaca), Vlatko Stojanovksi (Chambly), Darko Churlinov (Stuttgart), Milan Ristovski (Spartak Trnava), Krste Velkoski (Sarajevo)
North Macedonia versus…
…Netherlands P 4 W 0 D 2 L 2 F 3 A 8
…Ukraine P 2 W 0 D 0 L 2 F 0 A 3
…Austria P 2 W 0 D 0 L 2 F 2 A 6
Nickname: The Lynxes, The Lions
Top Division: 1. MFL
FIFA World Ranking: 62
International honours: None
Most capped player: Goran Pandev (114)
Leading international goalscorer: Goran Pandev (36)
Macedonia at the European Championships
1960 – Did not exist
1964 – Did not exist
1968 – Did not exist
1972 – Did not exist
1976 – Did not exist
1980 – Did not exist
1984 – Did not exist
1988 – Did not exist
1992 – Did not exist
1996 – Did not qualify
2000 – Did not qualify
2004 – Did not qualify
2008 – Did not qualify
2012 – Did not qualify
2016 – Did not qualify
How they got to Euro 2020: Wins last fall over Kosovo (2-1) and Georgia (1-0) sealed Macedonia’s qualification via the Nations League playoffs.