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Late Enis Bardhi goal earns North Macedonia 1-1 draw with Italy on Luciano Spalletti's debut

Italy midfielder Sandro Tonali hit the post with a low shot shortly after and Bryan Cristante was denied by goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski from close range.

The state of the pitch caused some Italy players to complain about its condition which, however, did not prevent the visitors from taking the lead through Immobile in the 47th minute. Dimarco, however, said “after our goal, we stopped playing”.

North Macedonia, who last year beat the Italians in a qualifying play-off to reach the 2022 World Cup, spent more time in the visitors' half after the break and Elmas could have levelled from distance but shot was just wide of the far post.

But Bardhi did finally conjure up a late equaliser to give his side a boost before they visit bottom side Malta on Tuesday. REUTERS

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – North Macedonia captain Enis Bardhi's stunning free kick cancelled out Ciro Immobile's header to earn a 1-1 home draw against Italy in their Euro 2024 Group C qualifier on Saturday, spoiling Luciano Spalletti's debut as the Azzurri coach.

European champions Italy dominated the game and their captain Immobile netted with a header just after the break, following up after Nicolo Barella hit the bar from distance.

But midfielder Bardhi delighted the crowd when he equalised with a free kick from just outside the box that flew into the top right corner in the 81st minute.

“We conceded little, but we could have done more harm,” said Spalletti, who was named Italy coach in August after former manager Roberto Mancini resigned to take over Saudi Arabia.

“We suffered when the game got messy... However, the team played a decent game that we can work on. We didn’t allow them much and we lacked the patience to make the right passes, when we had the time and space to do so.”

Italy remain third in the group, level on four points with fourth-placed North Macedonia, although the Italians have only played three games to their opponents' four.

Italy also have two games in hand as compared to leaders England, who have 13 points after earlier on Saturday rescuing a 1-1 draw against Ukraine, who are second with seven points from four matches. Italy next host Ukraine at the San Siro on Tuesday.

“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 Sport.

Federico Dimarco acknowledged that Ukraine is now a must-win match while Spalletti said: “We will also have to change a few players for the next game, because the pitch took its toll on them. I also had to take off some of the players who were on yellow cards.”

Napoli’s North Macedonian midfielder Eljif Elmas called the Tose Proeski Arena pitch “shameful”, telling RAI Sport: “It is a great result, because we played on a frankly shameful pitch.

“I can only apologise to all Italians, to all of Europe. You cannot play football on a pitch like this. It was a problem for us just as much as it was for Italy.”

Italy had 85 per cent of possession in a chaotic first half, during which midfielder Barella thought he netted the opener in the third minute, but his effort was flagged for a clear offside.

The hosts also had chances and forward Bojan Miovski could have upset the visitors as early as the 19th minute of Spalletti's debut when he narrowly missed with a diving header.