Our 21

Eljif Elmas' importance to North Macedonia highlighted in Ukraine loss

Max Parsons
Eljif Elmas is the star turn of North Macedonia's side
Eljif Elmas is the star turn of North Macedonia's side / Justin Setterfield - Pool/Getty Images

North Macedonia's loss to Ukraine on Thursday afternoon was the goodbye that no football fan watching Euro 2020 wanted to make.

Igor Angelovski's men bowed out of the delayed European Championships, having lost both of their opening two group matches - 3-1 to Austria on matchday one and 2-1 to Andriy Shevchenko's side on matchday two. But one thing is certain; these plucky underdogs have fight, spirit and, undeniably, some quality.

On reflection, Ukraine simply had too much quality for them on the day. North Macedonia put up a good fight but Manchester City's Oleksandr Zinchenko dominated midfield and ran the likes of Stefan Spirovski and Arijan Ademi ragged, while creative, intelligent and, at times, artistic wing and full-back play saw Angelovski's side struggle to contain the waves of yellow pressure.

Andriy Yarmolenko
Andriy Yarmolenko got his second goal of the tournament / Mihai Barbu - Pool/Getty Images

Going forward, though, the Macedonians didn't lie down and take defeat. But their lack of midfield thrust made it much too difficult to break out and create clear-cut, goalscoring opportunities.

Enis Bardhi, the man tasked with breaking through the Ukraine midfield, played well. In fact, he was North Macedonia's best performer, often demonstrating a flair, drive and technical ability that sends spectators wild. But it wasn't enough.

He was alone in that venture far too often, and struggled to link things together when presented with too few options. Things may have turned out differently, however, had 21-year-old Eljif Elmas been utilised in a different way. The Napoli prospect performed fantastically in his nation's opening match against Austria, showing an almost arrogant nonchalance in everything he created from deep.

Eljif Elmas against Austria / MARKO DJURICA/Getty Images

Against Ukraine, however, he was deployed as a striker, tasked with adding that quick thrust in an attack that contained 37-year old Goran Pandev. In fairness, Elmas showed a brilliant positional understanding on several occasions and presented an option within the 18-yard box - but that's not his game.

Had he been allowed to sit in midfield and express himself freely, you'd have to imagine that defence and attack would have been linked in a much more efficient manner and that the sole deep-lying midfielder Taras Stepanenko would've been in for a torrid time - instead of the walk in the park he had.

As Zinchenko and Mykola Shaparenko stepped up, he was left isolated in the middle and - while he's a good player - he's no N'Golo Kante. Elmas' edge would've been the driving force from deep to really ask questions beyond the opposition midfield, rather than seeing the ball come back their way time after time - especially in the first half.

Enis Bardhi wasn't able to outmanoeuvre the Ukraine midfield / DANIEL MIHAILESCU/Getty Images

Elmas' knack for turning away from opponents and dragging his side upfield would've presented Ukraine with a completely different challenge - impressive characteristics that earned him a place among 90min's Our 21.

North Macedonia may have bowed out of Euro 2020, but they still have one match left to play against heavyweight opponents, Netherlands. With the tension lifted and everyone except the Dutch cheering them on, it'll be interesting to see what they - and the thrillingly promising Elmas - can produce on the big occasion.