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 and we were not ready to recreate the defensive solidity, so the clearances were often recaptured by their midfielders."
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 of 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.
Italy had 85% 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 on his debut when he narrowly missed the target with a diving header.
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.
But North Macedonia, who last year beat the Italians in a qualifying playoff to reach the 2022 World Cup, spent more time in the visitors' half after the break and Eljif 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.