Italy survived a scare and some defensive howlers to secure a 3-1 World Cup qualifying victory in Armenia. The Azzurri now have seven points from three games on the road to Brazil 2014, as Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo put their recent Roma troubles behind them.
Mario Balotelli was only fit for the bench due to a cold, while Angelo Ogbonna pulled out injured, so Sebastian Giovinco started in Yeravan with Roma striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo. It was a friendly atmosphere in this World Cup qualifier for Group B, which marked the return of Domenico Criscito after he was cleared of all wrongdoing in the betting scandal.
After just five minutes Andrea Pirlo curled one of his trademark free kicks, but 38-year-old Roman Berezovski flew to palm it out of the top corner in a splendid save. Riccardo Montolivo went clear down the right and rolled across for Claudio Marchisio, but it was somewhere between an assist and a shot that achieved neither.
Criscito surged along the left to the by-line and pulled back for Montolivo, whose first attempt on a backheel from four yards was well parried by Berezovski, but the follow-up struck Hrayr Mkoyan on the arm for a penalty. It might’ve seemed a little harsh, as it was ball to hand from point-blank range, but was within the rules. Pirlo slowly rolled the spot-kick to send Berezovski the wrong way and give Italy the lead.
Curiously, this was the first penalty Italy have scored since the 2010 World Cup against New Zealand, ending a 30-game spot-kick-less streak.
Leonardo Bonucci was booked for clearly holding back Henrik Mkhitaryan by the jersey on the edge of the box in a very risky challenge, as the Juventus man was beaten for pace. Gigi Buffon fingertipped that free kick from Aras Ozibilis over the crossbar.
Italy were flagged offside repeatedly – not always accurately – while there was a huge risk on 23 minutes. Bonucci gave away a corner, from which a cross was floated into the six-yard box and cleared by Daniele De Rossi before anyone could tap in.
Pirlo’s inspired pass over the top could not be volleyed by Bonucci because he was being held back by the shoulder. His penalty appeals were waved away.
Just 30 seconds later Armenia equalised in controversial circumstances. Christian Maggio clashed heads with Davit Manoyan and the referee put the whistle to his lips, but did not blow, allowing play to continue. Mkhitaryan surged forward past Andrea Barzagli and placed an angled drive across Buffon’s outstretched hand into the far bottom corner. Cesare Prandelli was furious, especially as Maggio needed treatment for some time after the goal. The rules do suggest that a head injury should see play halted.
There were more protests on 32 minutes, as a free kick was awarded just outside the area for a Mkoyan handling offence. It was the same player who gave away the penalty, but he did not receive a second yellow card.
The free kick was wasted, as Pirlo dummied and Giovinco curled it weakly into the goalkeeper’s arms. Ozbilis went on the rapid counter-attack, though Buffon easily smothered his daisy-cutter. A set play was cleared to just inside the area, where Giovinco fired inches over the bar.
Robert Arzumanyan’s long-range strike was well held and another incorrect offside flag stopped a promising Montolivo opportunity. Montolivo did go through on the stroke of half-time from a Pirlo through ball, but pulled the angled drive well off target. Giovinco let the tension get to him and was booked for dissent, having just fouled Valeri Aleksanyan.
Armenia came out fighting for the second half and Artur Edigaryan was given far too much space to get his shot away, deflected over the bar by a Criscito sliding block. Giovinco went very close when he gathered a loose ball in the box and dribbled past his marker, but the rising strike from six yards could only clip the crossbar.
Mkhitaryan was also dangerous on the counter with an angled drive that flashed across the face of goal. There were further protests for a handling offence from a Pirlo free kick, but this time Mkoyan nodded it on to his arm, so that was to be considered involuntary.
Buffon needed a sensational reaction save on 56 minutes. Mkhitaryan burst forward on the counter down the right and pulled back for Manoyan’s fine volley, but the Italy goalkeeper flew to palm it round the upright.
Ozibilis squirmed between two defenders down the left and his shot bounced off Buffon’s chest before getting it back under control. Stephan El Shaarawy replaced a disappointing Giovinco, who needed ice on his swollen ankle after an early knock, and Criscito’s angled drive skimmed the far post.
Italy restored their advantage with a bit of luck, as Pirlo curled a trademark cross into the six-yard box where De Rossi’s diving header went in off the underside of the crossbar. The Roma midfielder celebrated wildly, having been dropped by Zdenek Zeman at club level last week.
Moments later Osvaldo sparked a counter-attack, spread by Montolivo for El Shaarawy’s shot deflected by a sliding tackle that looped it up into the air and forced Berezovski to fingertip out from under the bar. Pirlo was rested in favour of Emanuele Giaccherini for the final 15 minutes.
Armenia somehow failed to score moments later, as Bonucci horribly gave away possession in the box when robbed by Mkhitaryan and the pull-back found Yura Movsisyan to fire from six yards, but a crucial sliding tackle from Maggio was decisive to turn it wide. Giaccherini should’ve made it 3-1, but slipped as he got back on to a Claudio Marchisio roll across and ballooned off target.
Maggio flew past his marker down the right and pulled back for El Shaarawy, whose shot was charged down almost by accident by Arzumanyan on the line, then Osvaldo’s follow-up was also blocked.
The move continued for a De Rossi free kick, which saw Italy add a third goal to their tally. It was curled on to the head of Osvaldo from the penalty spot and twisted into the far top corner with Berezovski stranded. Like De Rossi, Osvaldo was dropped by Zeman at Roma last week.
Antonio Candreva was the final substitute, making his return to the Italy squad after three years.
Armenia 1-3 Italy
Scorers: Pirlo pen 12 (I), Mkhitaryan 28 (A), De Rossi 64 (I), Osvaldo 81 (I)
Armenia: Berezovski; Aleksanyan, Mkoyan, Arzumanyan, Artak Edigaryan; Ozbiliz, Mkrtchyan, Artur Edigaryan (Manucharyan 65), Manoyan (Sarkisov 77); Mkhitaryan, Movsisyan
Italy: Buffon; Maggio, Barzagli, Bonucci, Criscito; De Rossi, Pirlo (Giaccherini 74), Marchisio; Montolivo (Candreva 87); Osvaldo, Giovinco (El Shaarawy 60)
Ref: Strahonja (CRO)