Italy kept the pressure up on Spain at the top of FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifying Group G on Friday, as they beat Albania 2-0 at the Stadio Renzo Barbera.
Daniele De Rossi gave the hosts an early lead from the penalty spot, calmly slotting home in the 12th minute after Andrea Belotti was fouled.
In the second period, the match was temporarily suspended as smoke from the Albanian end of the stadium impaired visibility. Once the action resumed Italy secured the three points, with Ciro Immobile guiding home a header at the back post.
Despite the win, Italy still trail Spain, who beat Israel 4-1 on Friday night, on goal difference.
The game was always going to be a memorable one for Italy’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. As noted by Bleacher Report UK, it was a landmark appearance for the 39-year-old:
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
What. A. Career. 👏🏼 https://t.co/marIT38cD52017-3-24 19:45:50
As anticipated, Italy were the dominant force in this one, with their robust opponents happy to drop off and soak up pressure. But Albania’s initial game plan was undone early on.
That was after Belotti was shoved to the ground as a free-kick was delivered into the area, giving the referee an easy decision. The experienced De Rossi stepped up to send the goalkeeper the wrong way and give his team a crucial opener.
Given he operates as a defensive midfield player, the Roma man has a pretty impressive goal haul for the Azzurri, per OptaPaolo:
20 - Daniele De Rossi has scored his 20th goal for Italy National team: he has reached Paolo Rossi (12th goalscorer all time). Ice. #ITAALB2017-3-24 20:05:00
From there, Italy really should have put the game to bed. The lively Belotti headed wide from a corner before De Rossi followed suit.
Belotti then had a brilliant opportunity on the stroke of half-time when he was played through. However, Thomas Strakosha was out quickly to foil the Torino man and keep his side in with a chance heading into the half-time break.
Italy came flying out of the traps in the second period, with the movement of Belotti and Immobile proving too sharp for the Albanian defenders to handle. Yet, just as they started to build momentum, it was halted by smoke from pyrotechnics in the stands engulfing Buffon’s goal.
The ForzaItalianFootball feed posted some footage of the field as the referee called the players off:
For the last 5 mins Albanian fans have been setting off flares and small bombs. Ref has suspended the match #ItaliaAlbania #ItalyAlbania https://t.co/wUV0XBZZDQ2017-3-24 21:02:51
After an eight-minute break, the game did get started again, with Italy straight back on the front foot. And it didn’t take them long to finish off their opponents.
Immobile, who has been in wonderful form for Lazio, was alert in the penalty area as a cross was swung in from the right side. From there, the striker did superbly to peel off his marker and steer a header back across goal to make the score 2-0.
As noted by Squawka Football, he’s been red-hot in front of goal lately:
Squawka Football @Squawka
Ciro Immobile has now scored 7 goals in his last 7 games for club & country. Getting back to his best this season. https://t.co/mZtBrWm8NL2017-3-24 21:29:52
From that point on, the match was essentially over and Italy were able to see it out with relative ease.
This was far from the most fluid Italian performance. They weren’t helped by the stoppage in the second period, while they also found it difficult to build impetus against a dogged Albania team. But they’ll be delighted to have kept in touch with Spain in the race to finish top.
Having struggled to find a world-class centre-forward in recent years, Azzurri fans would have been delighted to see Immobile and Belotti work so well as a duo. Should they continue to develop an on-field affinity, Italy can be a real attacking force in years to come.
Afterward, Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura and midfielder Marco Verratti reacted to an important win, per the team's official Twitter feed:
🎙 | #Ventura: "There was some tension at the start, we weren't fluid. Other than the shot at the start, we didn't give anything up."2017-3-24 21:50:20
🎙 | #Ventura: "It was a step forward. There's everything here to do something significant for the #Azzurri's future." #ItalyAlbania 2-02017-3-24 21:51:34
🎙 | #Verratti: "We prepared well for the match. We respect every opponent. We could have scored more, we created a lot." #ItalyAlbania ￼2017-3-24 21:54:26
🎙 | #Verratti: "The #Italy team belongs to everyone if they play or not. You feel important by contributing to the cause." #ItalyAlbania2017-3-24 21:57:25