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Eljif Elmas provides hope that Euro 2020 wasn't a one-off for North Macedonia

Ross Jackson
Eljif Elmas at Euro 2020
Eljif Elmas at Euro 2020 / Soccrates Images/Getty Images

To the rest of Europe, North Macedonia were purely at Euro 2020 to make up the numbers.

They'd somehow managed to qualify via the playoffs and were unlikely to return to a major international tournament any time in the near future, so the general consensus was 'good on you for getting here, but it's only fair that you're now on the receiving end of three cricket scores in the group stages before departing with a smile and a wave'.

We think it's fair to say Eljif Elmas and his teammates had other ideas.

While the record books will show the dreaded zero in the points tally next to their name following their clashes with Austria, Ukraine and the Netherlands, the reality is they were in every single contest and were unlucky to leave without a point.

Only two late Austria strikes denied them a point in their opener, Ukraine beat them by just a single goal and despite being beaten 3-0 by the Netherlands they mustered an impressive 13 shots on goal, with VAR cruelly ruling out two strikes.

Some people may say 'whipping boys' but we see a very different version of events and central to their efforts was Elmas.

The Napoli midfielder kicked off his campaign in style, churning out a superb performance against David Alaba and co despite ending up on the losing side.

Some of his teammates might have been happy to sit back and play for a draw but he was quite the opposite, playing progressive balls and picking up little pockets of space where the Austrian players couldn't get near him.

The youngster's beautifully weighted through-ball to teammate Boban Nikolov very nearly resulted in a goal that would have handed his side a precious 2-1 lead, yet North Macedonia would be made to rue their missed opportunity as Austria hit back with two late strikes to notch all three points.

North Macedonia headed into their second group outing knowing they had to take something from their game against Ukraine to stand any chance of progressing through to the knockout rounds.

Eljif Elmas faces up to Frenkie De Jong
Eljif Elmas faces up to Frenkie De Jong / BSR Agency/Getty Images

Head coach Igor Angelovski went for broke and deployed the Napoli midfielder in an unfamiliar frontman role alongside veteran striker Goran Pandev. The move didn't work out and his side were beaten 2-1 in Bucharest, but their defeat had nothing to do with the performance of Elmas.

The 21-year-old looked dangerous whenever North Macedonia moved forward and he linked up well with Pandev, yet once again luck just wasn't on their side and their exit from Euro 2020 after just two games was confirmed.

Angelovski's side's final match at this summer's European Championship undoubtedly represented their most difficult task of the tournament, not just because of the opposition as they faced group leaders the Netherlands, but also because their fate was already sealed and they had nothing to play for but pride.

Eljif Elmas dribbles away from Daley Blind
Eljif Elmas dribbles away from Daley Blind / ANP Sport/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Elmas yet again performed admirably, helping to drive his side forward and supporting the front three having been moved back into his natural midfield berth.

The result flattered Frank de Boer's side a little, with the North Macedonia defence falling apart once Georginio Wijnaldum's first of the game shortly after half time had put the game to bed as a contest, and the 3-0 scoreline didn't tell the full story.

Elmas and his teammates looked a threat throughout and were it not for some poor finishing they would've left Euro 2020 having found the back of the net in all three of their group games.

North Macedonia may have been written off by a lot of people prior to the tournament - and it turns out they were kinda right, so well done you, dear lord what a sad little life - but they did themselves and their country proud.

Elmas challenges for the ball
Elmas challenges for the ball / MARKO DJURICA/Getty Images

Euro 2020 may have signalled the end of national hero Pandev's international career, but that doesn't mean their hopes of reaching another international tournament have now been extinguished - far from it in fact.

Elmas' displays at Euro 2020 proved he's good enough to cut it at the top level and with him at the heart of their midfield it might not be long before we see North Macedonia back on the big stage once again.