'A dream has become reality' - How Mourinho favourite Pandev fired North Macedonia to Euro 2020
For veteran followers of Champions League and Serie A, the name Goran Pandev will be familiar.
The 37-year-old has enjoyed a successful career at the top of the Italian game. The peak came in 2009-10, when he was a valuable squad player in the Inter side that won a treble under Jose Mourinho, whom the forward later described as "like a father" to him.
Scorer of 95 goals in 447 Serie A games for Lazio, Inter, Napoli and now Genoa, Pandev will be eyeing a century of strikes in the Italian top flight before the 2020-21 season ends – which, with his contract expiring, may also be his final campaign at the top level of European club football.
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He will not be done when his Genoa contract expires, however, as next summer – coronavirus-permitting – Pandev will celebrate the high point of his entire career.
Pandev will captain the North Macedonia squad which will play at the delayed European Championship, with the country having qualified for their first major tournament, 27 years after gaining independence from Yugoslavia.
They reached the finals through the play-offs, emerging victorious from the four nations in Path D – none of which had qualified for a major competition before.
Having defeated Kosovo 2-1 in Skopje in October – the play-offs reduced to single leg fixtures as a result of the pandemic – North Macedonia overcame Georgia in Tbilisi on Thursday night, Pandev’s 56th-minute strike, following a brilliant team move, proving enough to make history.
"I'm emotional and so happy. We played a great game. We stayed united and compact," a proud Pandev told UEFA's official website immediately after the game. "We've won for our people and for all of you. The dream has become a reality!
"We have a young group but the boys are strong and they have a good future ahead of them. Before the game, I spoke with the team and I told them to stay calm. At the end, we have won, and I'm just so excited."
The bizarre play-off system for Euro 2020 was always going to hand a golden ticket to one unlikely nation, as the new process ensured representation from each division of the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League.
The group winners of the four League D groups – Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Belarus – were bracketed together and, despite having only played among the lowest-ranked sides in Europe, suddenly found themselves two games from one of the world’s biggest international football tournaments.
North Macedonia – whose 2018 Nations League campaign saw them lose 4-0 in Armenia but top the pool thanks to home-and-away victories over Gibraltar and Liechtenstein – will, thus, compete at the delayed Euro 2020, when 2016 quarter-finalists Iceland, previous World Cup finalists Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Erling Haaland’s Norway must stay at home.
One cannot blame North Macedonia for UEFA’s logic, however. They have battled their way into history, and will now face Netherlands, Ukraine and Austria in Group C at Euro 2020.
While the plan of hosting the tournament across 12 nations is under threat because of Covid-19, North Macedonia are currently scheduled to play their fixtures in Netherlands and Romania.
Their first ever tournament fixture will be against Austria in Bucharest on June 13, before playing Ukraine at the same venue four days later.
Their final group match is at the Johan Cruyff Arena against the Dutch on June 21 – a tough conclusion, but given the four best third-place sides reach the knock-out stages, and Group C is far from the toughest in the tournament, North Macedonia should have high hopes of emulating Iceland, Hungary and Northern Ireland from 2016 by earning a surprise last-16 spot.
Doing so will require more from the squad than just relying on the talismanic Pandev – and several players have experience of participating in a major international tournament, having played for Macedonia at the 2017 U21 European Championship.The back three against Georgia – Dejan Velkovski, Visar Musliu and Egzon Bejtullai – all played at the 2017 tournament in Poland, conceding 11 goals in three matches as they finished bottom of their group. They will hope experience brings better results.
The most eye-catching player in the squad is Elif Elmas, the 21-year-old attacking midfielder who lined up just behind Pandev in Tbilisi and plays his club football with Napoli.
Elmas has only completed 90 minutes four times for Napoli since a €16 million (£14m/$18m) move from Fenerbahce in summer 2019 and is more regularly used as an impact sub.
However, since making his senior international debut at 17, he has been a key figure for his country, as shown with his skill and drive which helped set up Pandev's winner on Thursday. His creativity will be an invaluable asset at Euro 2020 for a side which will likely have to do a lot of defending.
Absent from the Georgia game due to injury was Enis Bardhi, the Levante attacking midfielder. The 25-year-old has established himself as a set-piece specialist in La Liga – two seasons ago, only Lionel Messi scored more free kicks than him in the Spanish top flight.
One familiar name for English football fans is Ezgjan Alioski, the Leeds United utility man who played left-wing back on Thursday but is often deployed in a more attacking role.
There is no question, however, that Pandev is the leading light and will provide the inspiration for North Macedonia at Euro 2020.
His ride with the international side has not always been smooth – he quit after failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, before returning for the 2018 campaign under current manager Igor Angelovski.
However, Pandev is now set for a fittingly grand finale.