PORTO (AFP): Bruno Fernandes fired Portugal to the 2022 World Cup by scoring twice in a 2-0 victory over Italy s conquerors North Macedonia on Tuesday.
Italy s shock exit had North Macedonia dreaming of their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals but Portugal and Fernandes proved a step too far in Porto.
Fernandes eased Portuguese nerves at the Estadio do Dragao by finishing off Cristiano Ronaldo s pass in the first half and then made the win more comfortable in the second, latching onto an inch-perfect cross from the excellent Diogo Jota.
The victory means Portugal extend their run of qualifying for six out of six World Cups since the turn of the century while Ronaldo is on course for his fifth, aged 37.
The striker s best previous result was reaching the semi-finals in 2006, when Portugal were beaten by Germany.
North Macedonia, placed 67th in the world rankings, had defeated Germany to finish second in Group J before dumping out European champions Italy in the play-off semi-final on Friday, Aleksandar Trajkovski scoring a 92nd-minute winner to pull off a stunning result in Palermo.
Portugal, meanwhile, have yet to strike a balance between their traditionally conservative approach and an array of attacking talent that would be the envy of any country in the world.
They were denied top spot in Group A by Serbia while Fernando Santos side were relieved to see Turkey miss an 85th-minute penalty, with the score 2-1, in their semi-final win on Thursday.
North Macedonia made a confident start too, their possession sustained enough to draw whistles from an agitated home crowd.
Portugal s first chance came in the 14th minute when Jota threaded Ronaldo through and the striker unleashed with his left foot, only to fire wide of the far post.
Jota headed into the ground and over from a Fernandes corner and then in the 32nd minute, Fernandes struck, capitalising on an error from North Macedonian captain, Stefan Ristovski.
Fernandes intercepted Ristovski s wild cross-field pass, taming the ball with a cushioned pass forward to his Manchester United teammate Ronaldo. Ronaldo arrived at the edge of the area but instead of shooting nudged right, through the legs of Visar Misliu and back to Fernandes, who drove in.
Jota might have doubled the advantage but hit the side-netting before half-time, which North Macedonia were relieved to reach without further punishment after Portugal s most assertive spell so far.
The visitors regrouped and found their feet at the start of the second period but were undone again by a slick Portuguese break, and Fernandes.
Pepe dispossessed Enis Bardhi and Portugal were away, the ball spread left to Jota who arced a superb cross into the area. Fernandes arrived and caught the finish perfectly on the half-volley.
North Macedonia wanted a late penalty when Danilo Pereira nicked the ball away from Bojan Miovski in the area before Ronaldo was prevented from reaching Fernandes cross to the near post on another counter-attack.
With the minnows beaten, Ronaldo can look to Qatar.