Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Italy recover to beat Albania, Spain comfortable against Croatia

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2024 | 12:12 AM
Italian players celebrate after Italy’s Nicolo Barella scored his side’s second goal during their Group B match against Albania at the Euro 2024 football tournament in Dortmund, Germany, yesterday.
Italian players celebrate after Italy’s Nicolo Barella scored his side’s second goal during their Group B match against Albania at the Euro 2024 football tournament in Dortmund, Germany, yesterday.

Croatia’s Luka Modric reacts as Spain’s Dani Carvajal is congratulated after scoring his side’s third goal during a Group B match at the Euro 2024 football tournament in Berlin, Germany, yesterday.
Croatia’s Luka Modric reacts as Spain’s Dani Carvajal is congratulated after scoring his side’s third goal during a Group B match at the Euro 2024 football tournament in Berlin, Germany, yesterday.
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DORTMUND, Germany (AP):

BY CONCEDING a goal after just 23 seconds, Italy made the worst-possible start to its European Championship title defence.

Thankfully for the Azzurri, it soon got much better.

Italy recovered from letting in the quickest goal in the tournament’s 64-year history to beat Albania 2-1 in Dortmund yesterday in an atmospheric Adriatic derby that immediately threatened an upset.

Nedim Bajrami thrilled a heavily pro-Albanian crowd at Westfalenstadion by pouncing on a throw-in by Italy left-back Federico Dimarco that failed to reach teammate Alessandro Bastoni, before taking a touch and smashing a rising shot inside the near post.

Within 16 minutes, the Italians were ahead, as Bastoni headed in Lorenzo Pellegrini’s cross to the back post in the 11th, then Nicolo Barella struck home a swerving first-time shot from the edge of the area.

Barella was one of five survivors from the team that started for Italy in the penalty-shootout win over England in the 2021 European Championship final.

The pressure was on Italy’s new-look side under Luciano Spalletti to win its opener, given the other teams in Group B are three-time champions Spain and Croatia, a World Cup semi-finalist in 2022. Spain had beaten Croatia 3-0 earlier.

Bajrami’s goal gave the Azzurri a jolt and created some history – it was much quicker than the previous fastest in the tournament’s lifespan, which was 67 seconds by Russia’s Dmitri Kirichenko in 2004.

Yet, they controlled the game after that, dominating possession to a backdrop of jeers and boos from a sea of Albanian red in the crowd.

“They showed there was a gulf in class by playing good football … we played the game the right way,” Spalletti said.

“The scoreline doesn’t reflect the difference between the two teams.”

It’s now just one loss in 12 matches under Spalletti, who took over last August – three months after leaving Napoli following their Italian league triumph – and was tasked with restoring national pride after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for a second straight time.

Italy is clearly more at home in the European Championship these days, as it goes for a record-tying third title.

Making its second appearance at a European Championship, Albania – coached by former Barcelona and Arsenal defender Sylvinho – nearly grabbed a draw in stoppage time, only for Rey Manaj’s deft chip to deflect just wide off the back of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s goalkeeper and captain.

That rare attack by Albania came moments after a fan ran onto the field and evaded a couple of stewards before eventually being stopped.