Ezgjan Alioski was back to his raging, intensive best for North Macedonia in their shock win over Italy… now the former Leeds United cult hero wants to help bring the curtain down on Cristiano Ronaldo’s illustrious international career
- Ezgjan Alioski played a key role in helping North Macedonia beat Italy last week
- The Balkans side produced one of the greatest ever football upsets in Sicily
- Alioski was a cult hero at Leeds and the 30-year-old showed he still has intensity
Ezgjan Alioski was known and loved for a cult unpredictability during four years at Leeds United.
He liked to shake the retractable tunnels before home and away games and once squared up to team-mate Pontus Jansson, during a goal celebration. ‘He punched me on the back. It made me angry,’ Alioski explained.
No-one had quite expected the performance the 30-year-old left-back put in for North Macedonia against Italy last Thursday night, either. Macedonia coach Blagoja ‘Bobi’ Milevski feared that Alioski’s departure from Elland Road to Saudi side Al-Ahli last summer might make him short of competitive intensity – and indeed he had looked slightly rusty this year.
Ezgjan Alioski was key in North Macedonia’s shock World Cup play-off victory against Italy
But in the 1-0 win over Italy in Palermo which ranks among the great international upsets, Alioski was back at his best, making a dozen defensive interventions including the exemplary block to smother a Domenico Berardi volley which is currently being replayed on continuous loop in Skopje, the Balkan country’s capital.
The contribution has left him buoyed for Tuesday night’s play-off against Portugal in Porto and he is characteristically colourful in his declaration that he would be happy to bring the curtain down on Cristiano Ronaldo’s international career there.
‘Ronaldo is a great player who has been playing at the highest level for almost 20 years,’ Alioski said. ‘We don’t want to ruin his career with an absence from the World Cup, but we really want to fulfil our great dream. We all believe that we can do in Portugal what we did in Italy.’
Alioski’s contribution against Italy owes a lot to coach ‘Bobi’ Milevski, another cult figure in this fledgling nation, who is known as ‘Sir Bobby’ – after Charlton, rather than Robson.
The 51-year-old is known as a big motivator but he also put Alioski on strict instructions not to go wandering out of defence and up-field against the Italians. Wise counsel, given that Roberto Mancini’s side had 32 shots on goal before Trajkovski smash-and-grab raid at the end.
‘Alioski used to be a winger,’ said Ognen Dojcinovski, of North Macedonia’s Sportmedia website. ‘It means he does like to go on the offensive. But Milevski told him it had to be defence and nothing but defence. He put in so many challenges. He was on another level. Expect the same against Portugal.’
Alioski’s block against Domenico Berardi’s goalbound effort was a vital moment in the match
There was something beautifully homespun about the aftermath of the win. Trajkovski still had the match-ball under his arm when the players arrived at Palermo airport on Friday.
But this win was perhaps not quite the bolt from the blue that some may have assumed. North Macedonia, formed out of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, might have a population of only two million but its team are supremely well organised. They beat Germany 2-1 away in a World Cup qualifier last year, with another late goal.
‘There’s a fierce pride,’ said Dojcinovski. ‘We took fourth place in the basketball European Championships and fifth in handball but nothing is like football for our people. When we beat Georgia and qualified for last summer’s Euros there were 100,000 people out in the streets of Skopje.’
The left-back was something of a cult hero at Leeds before he left for Saudi Arabia last year
The Italians also gave North Macedonia a grievance to feed on. The decision to stage Thursday’s game on Sicily was seen as a deliberate ploy to make it inaccessible to Milan’s large Macedonian population.
Trajkovski says that he is ready for Ronaldo, Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes and Co. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We have belief. We are going to play Portugal with plans to do the same thing we did against Italy. I just hope they will underestimate us.’
Alioski, meanwhile, is already discussing the notion of a winter World Cup in Qatar. ‘We dream of being there and we will do everything to make this great dream come true,’ he said. ‘We know that we are always the ‘outsiders’ but we couldn’t care less. But we want to beat Portugal, no matter what.’