Italy held to a 1-1 draw with North Macedonia on Saturday (AP)
As defending champion.
On coach Luciano Spalletti’s debut, Italy was held to a 1-1 draw at North Macedonia in a qualifying match on Saturday.
While it was an improvement from last year’s loss in Palermo to North Macedonia that eliminated the Azzurri from the World Cup qualifying playoffs, it was still far below expectations against a team ranked 68th by FIFA.
Spalletti hasn’t had much time with his team since taking over at the start of the month after Roberto Mancini suddenly resigned and was then announced as Saudi Arabia’s coach.
Italy has won only one of its three qualifiers — and that was against last-place Malta.
Italy remained third in Group C. England leads with 13 points, Ukraine has nine and the Azzurri and North Macedonia have four points each. Malta trails with zero points.
The top two finishers in each group qualify and three more teams will advance from playoffs.
While Spalletti earned plaudits all over Europe for his attacking style when he coached Napoli to the Serie A title last season, there were only glimpses of that flair on a Skopje pitch that was in poor condition.
Ciro Immobile celebrated his first match as captain by putting Italy ahead with a header shortly after the break but Enis Bardhi equalized for the hosts with a free kick in the 81st.
“We could have done better with quality, as they were defending with five men, so we should have split them apart more easily,” Spalletti said. “That was also inevitable with the state of the pitch, as it is not possible to pass with quality on that turf.”
Ukraine ended England’s perfect start to qualifying after Oleksandr Zinchenko’s first-half goal helped secure a 1-1 draw in Wroclaw, Poland.
Zinchenko put Ukraine ahead with a side-footed finish in the 26th before Kyle Walker equalized with his first goal for England, on his 77th appearance, in the 41st.
Ukraine’s fans celebrated as if it was a win after the final whistle, with the players applauding the supporters in return. The team is playing all its “home” games in Poland because of the war against Russia.
“An amazing result for us. England are one of the best teams in the world,” Zinchenko said. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. It felt like we played at home. I really hope very soon we can play at home.”
Yannick Carrasco scored a first-half goal as Belgium won 1-0 at Azerbaijan to move atop the group. Romelu Lukaku played 66 minutes but couldn’t break a tie with Denmark’s Rasmus Hojlund and Scotland’s Scott McTominay atop the qualifying scoring chart. All three players have scored six goals.
Sweden routed Estonia 5-0.
Belgium and Austria have 10 points, Sweden has six points, and Estonia and Azerbaijan trail with one point each.
Switzerland remained atop the group but conceded an injury-time equalizer in a 2-2 draw with Kosovo in Pristina.
Kosovo striker Vedat Muriqi completed a brace four minutes into added time.
Remo Freuler opened the scoring for Switzerland, which also got an own goal from Kosovo defender Amir Rrahmani.
Romania and Israel drew 1-1 and tiny Andorra held visiting Belarus to a 0-0 draw.
Switzerland leads with 11 points, followed by Romania (9), Israel (8), Belarus (4), Kosovo (4) and Andorra (2).
A minute’s silence was held before each match in memory of the victims of the earthquake in Morocco.
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