Italy started its journey toward a potential appearance in the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a hard-fought 3-1 away victory Monday over Israel at Sammy Ofer Stadium.
Graziano Pelle, Antonio Candreva and Ciro Immobile found the net for the Azzurri in a match that was closer than the final scoreline might suggest. Israel made a serious push for an equalizer during the middle portion of the second half before Immobile scored to secure all three points for the visitors.
Tal Ben Haim tallied the only goal for Israel in the first fixture of UEFA Group G qualifying.
Italy head coach Giampiero Ventura started his tenure with a lackluster 3-1 home defeat at the hands of France in a friendly last week. Football Italia noted the longtime manager hoped his squad would be able to turn things around quickly to begin the qualifying campaign.
"In football the results are what count, but I'd have been happy with such a determined performance," he said. "My optimism comes from the fact it's not that difficult to take a step forward."
The Azzurri, who allowed two goals within the first 30 minutes against France, were far more efficient in the defensive third in the early going Monday.
Pelle proceeded to open the scoring for the Italians in the 14th minute. The 31-year-old striker completed a well-executed tic-tac-toe passing play that started with Marco Verratti slotting a through ball outside to Luca Antonelli, who sent a perfect pass across the box for the easy finish.
Gracenote Live provided more information about the opening tally by the Shandong Luneng Taishan star:
Gracenote Live @GracenoteLive
Graziano Pellè scores in consecutive international appearances for the first time ever. #WC2018 #IsraeleItalia2016-9-5 19:06:52
Italy increased the lead in the 31st minute from the penalty spot.
Giacomo Bonaventura made a strong run into the box and was fouled by Israel right-back Ben Bitton. Candreva took responsibility for the ensuing penalty and made no mistake, calmly sliding the shot into the right side of the net as David Goresh dove the opposite way.
Marco Messina of ItalianFootballTV praised Bonaventura for creating the opportunity:
Marco Messina @Marcocalcio22
Greta stuff from Bonaventura. Very dynamic, wins a penalty and Candreva converts it beautifully. Positive signs from Italia. 2-0 vs Israel2016-9-5 19:20:18
Just as it appeared Italy might enter cruise control, Israel halted the momentum courtesy of a terrific strike from Ben Haim.
The Israeli counterattack seemed to have broken down, with the Azzurri getting several players back into position, but the Maccabi Tel Aviv winger pushed forward anyway. Surrounded by four defenders, he hit a sublime chip that left Gianluigi Buffon with no option but to watch it sail into the far corner.
Onefootball commented on the highlight-reel moment:
Italy's effort to maintain the lead became tougher just before the hour mark when defender Giorgio Chiellini got sent off after receiving his second yellow card. He was already having a mediocre showing before seeing red, and he'll now be forced to miss next month's qualifying clash with Spain.
Tancredi Palmeri of BeIN Sports disagreed with referee Sergei Karasev's decision:
Tancredi Palmeri @tancredipalmeri
Unfair double booking for Chiellini, which is not something common to experience2016-9-5 20:02:11
Buffon rose to the occasion when Italy needed him most. He came up with several key stops, including a strong parry on an Eran Zahavi effort with about 20 minutes left, to preserve the lead.
After surviving Israel's surge, Immobile finished the scoring for Italy by outmuscling Shir Tzedek for a loose ball just outside the box and unleashing a laser into the far corner to make it 3-1.
The Azzurri provided a recap of the victory:
FT#IsraelItaly 1-3 (#Pellè, #Candreva pen, #BenChaim, #Immobile) It wasn't easy but did enough to open with 3 points https://t.co/crSlKMu85N2016-9-5 20:40:14
Looking ahead, Italy is still in the process of finding its footing under Ventura despite the win, but it doesn't have a ton of time to work through the transition. The Azzurri face a tough home test against Spain in a key Group G fixture next month before road qualifiers against Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Israel could have bolstered its chances of a surprise top-two finish by earning at least a point against Italy. The side's schedule is favorable for the rest of 2016, however, with upcoming qualifying matches against Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Albania creating a chance to build momentum.
Afterward, Pelle discussed the difficulty of playing away from home and still getting three points after going down a man early in the second half, according to the team's official Twitter feed.
"We knew that it would be a tough place to go to," Pelle said. "The goal galvanized them but we fought, even when down to 10."
Jamie Smith of Goal relayed remarks from Ventura, who admitted there's still work to do as the search for a more complete performance continues.
"If we are convinced that we are a team in all arenas, we must show courage always," he said. "I won't say our performance was perfect, as we conceded that goal similar to the one we let in against France. We worked as a team, suffered as a team and won as a team."
Ventura concluded: "I hope in a month against Spain that we'll be in better shape physically and can therefore play better than tonight."