Italy needed a last-minute goal from Ciro Immobile to beat Macedonia 3-2 in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier on Sunday.
Andrea Belotti gave the Italians a deserved lead in the first half, but sloppy play led to two scores by Ilija Nestorovski and Ferhan Hasani and a 2-1 lead for Macedonia after the break.
Immobile tied things up with 15 minutes left to play, but several questionable decisions from the official seemed to hold the Azzurri from finding a late winner. The Lazio man came through in injury time, however.
As Italy's official Twitter account shared, in-form striker Andrea Belotti earned a start:
The #Azzurri 💙 starting XI for tonight's match! 🇲🇰🇮🇹 #WCQ #MKDITA #VivoAzzurro https://t.co/Gl3lmzxtka2016-10-9 17:44:01
The hosts came out with a similar formation to Italy's, and the opening stages were cagey as a result. Immobile and Antonio Candreva were both called back for offside early, with the latter putting the ball in the net just as the flag was raised.
Martin Bogatinov claimed a cross before Immobile or Belotti could connect, while on the other side of the pitch, a bad decision by Alessio Romagnoli saw Egzijan Alioski fire a shot into the side netting.
Macedonia didn't make things easy on the favoured Italians and went close to taking the lead after 18 minutes, as Nestorovski beat goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon with a wonderful strike, only to see the ball bounce off the crossbar.
Het Nieuwsblad's Vince Van Genechten didn't like the Azzurri's effort early:
Vince Van Genechten @VVGenechten
Tempo once again too slow by #Azzurri. #Verratti needs to demand the ball. #Marchisio return will help sooooo much #MacedoniaItalia2016-10-9 19:06:22
Italy did most of their damage on the counter, and Candreva and Immobile combined to put the latter in a promising position. Immobile aimed his finish right at Bogatinov, however.
A set piece unlocked the Macedonian defence, however, as Federico Bernardeschi launched a perfect corner into the box, and Belotti easily poked it home from close range.
BT Sport's Adam Summerton thinks it won't be the last goal he scores for the team:
Adam Summerton @adamsummerton
Brilliant Belotti - think that could be first of many for Italy #MACITA2016-10-9 19:10:56
Macedonia didn't let the setback get to them, however, and a quick counter almost allowed Goran Pandev to play in his team-mates, only for the flag to go up once again.
Pandev continued to waste opportunities, as his touch left him down after a clever move on Mattia De Sciglio, and Alioski resorted to another ambitious effort from long range, putting the ball well wide.
The Italian defence kept giving the hosts opportunities, however, and Nestorovski put Buffon to work with a tame header.
Giacomo Bonaventura had a golden opportunity to double his team's lead moments before half-time, as a cross from Candreva was lightly touched by Bogatinov and landed flush on the midfielder's face. He just couldn't react fast enough.
At half-time, Van Genechten gave full credit to the scorer:
Vince Van Genechten @VVGenechten
#MacedoniaItalia 0-1 HT. #Belotti is the difference. Read it and remember it #Azzurri2016-10-9 19:32:05
Football Italia's David Swan wasn't happy, however:
David Swan @DavidLSwan
I don't think Verratti is a player that can, or should, sit in front of the defence. Move him so he can go forward. Bernardeschi not a CM2016-10-9 19:36:22
Italy started the second half well, with Immobile testing Bogatinov, but more errors started creeping into the visitors' play before long.
Stefan Spirovski was booked for a foul on Romagnoli inside the area, but the official didn't award a penalty, as the ball wasn't in play at the time.
Disaster struck for the Azzurri after 57 minutes, with Marco Verratti passing the ball right at Nestorovski. The forward was barely pressured by the Italian defence, and he gladly accepted the gift and beat Buffon from the edge of the box.
ItalianFootballDaily put the blame squarely on the Paris Saint-Germain man:
Macedonia scores. 1-1. What a howler by Verratti.2016-10-9 19:59:02
And things got even worse two minutes later. Bernardeschi gave away the ball cheaply, and a deflected pass eventually ended in the feet of Hasani, who also didn't miss.
The Azzurri tried to hit back through Verratti, who found Immobile with a superb long ball. The Lazio man fired his shot well wide of the mark, however.
Nicola Sansone and Marco Parolo were introduced in a desperate attempt to turn the tide, but the hosts played with renewed energy following their quick double, and chances were few.
Buffon made a vintage stop to deny Daniel Mojsov and was called on again when Alioski found some space, but the veteran kept his side alive. And just one minute later, Immobile finally found the mark with one of his efforts, converting an excellent cross from Candreva. Per Swan, it was the first thing he got right all night:
David Swan @DavidLSwan
Thank God for that. Immobile has been rubbish and has done nothing all night (as is normally the case for Italy), until that finish2016-10-9 20:16:53
Immobile was furious when the official didn't award a penalty for an apparent handball by Kire Ristevski, but such a punishment would have been harsh. He had another appeal just minutes later, before Candreva tested Bogatinov's reflexes.
Parolo's deflected header somehow ended up in the arms of Bogatinov, and the midfielder couldn't believe his luck when a goal was incorrectly disallowed for offside, even though Mojsov clearly kept him onside.
There was still time for Immobile to redeem himself, however, as the forward nodded home another Candreva cross for his second goal of the night and all three points.
Per Rai Sport (h/t Football Italia), Immobile wasn't happy with his team's performance:
In the second half we came out a bit sluggish and once we conceded the equaliser, we couldn’t react. On an international level you can’t get anything wrong, or they will gobble you up.
It went well for us this time, but we cannot be this naive again. It was a good second half against Spain, a good fightback here, but we need that determination always, not just when we go behind.
Italy will host Liechtenstein on Nov. 12 in their next qualifier, while Macedonia will face Spain.