It’s time to prepare for a French summer. Italy have qualified for Euro 2016 thanks to a 3-1 win away to Azerbaijan, the most prolific victory of this campaign. The Azzurri netted more than two goals for the first time under Antonio Conte – Matteo Darmian’s strike equalling a mark not reached since the 2013 Confederations Cup.
A game of soft goals, the home defence was opened time and again and the Azzurri profited. Meanwhile, there was a moment of anxiety as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci failed to deal with a long ball forward, giving Dimitrij Nazarov the chance to convert. It was one he did not pass up. It came after Eder netted his second international goal to give Italy an early lead. Stephan El Shaarawy restored the advantage, before Darmian’s second half sealer.
Six victories and three draws mean qualification with one game to spare. Yet in truth, Italy have flattered to deceive throughout the campaign and after three successive stalemates there was real pressure on the side. At that point it looked as if Italy would have a real scrap on their hands to finish in the top two. The final matter against Norway on Tuesday is playing for first.
This mirrored earlier matches in Group H. After taking the lead, the Azzurri ceded territory and possession to Azerbaijan and the home side created moments of panic, without seriously troubling Gianluigi Buffon. It took the equalising goal to spark the Italians into life again.
But at a major tournament playing with such slender margins leaves possibilities wide open. Italy saw what happens when balancing games on a knife-edge against Uruguay at the World Cup last year goes against you. The Azzurri headed home.
Conte must ram home the point that one goal is never enough. Especially when he – and the players – notes that there are no easy games anymore. And at the same time, Italy lack the ability of old to methodically hold a lead.
But in each goal scored there was promise. Andrea Pirlo was ruled out yesterday with a slight adductor problem and Daniele De Rossi suspended, giving the keys of the midfield to Marco Verratti. The Paris Saint-Germain player was tidy as ever in possession and kept things ticking over. His pass for Eder’s opener was superb – the run well timed and finish well taken. Only Bonucci was on the ball more times than Verratti, while he made a game-high five interceptions.
The second goal saw El Shaarawy lift a weight off his shoulders. Three years since his lone international goal, it was pleasing to see the former Milan man back on the scoresheet. The finish was a simple one, tapping in to an empty net. But given his persistent injury problems throughout recent years, it was significant.
Winning his 16th cap last night, Darmian added a first international goal to an admirable start to life at Manchester United. The 25-year-old netted a fine individual goal, capitalising on a poor attempt to play out from the back by Azerbaijan. Darmian’s anticipation to intercept the ball was matched only by his composure in the finish from outside the penalty area.
Those goals showed three avenues of promise for the Nazionale and augur well for Conte’s long-term preparation. Verratti, making only his sixth start in competitive action, has to take these opportunities with others missing. He did last night and was Italy’s best player throughout the 90 minutes.
Darmian has featured in all nine qualifiers and has pegged down the right-back role. El Shaarawy’s position is more muddled as he forms part of an attacking puzzle that Conte has not yet solved. But he is another option moving forward to Euro 2016.
It was at times a typically laboured performance that has been a consistent theme throughout qualification. Yet the key moments that led to the victory will be most pleasing for Conte, as he and the Azzurri can now look forward to a French adventure.
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