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Azerbaijan vs. Italy: Score and Reaction from Euro 2016 Qualifier

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2015

Italy's Eder , right, scores a goal during the Euro 2016 group H qualifying soccer match between the Azerbaijan and Italy at the Olympic stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

Italy have qualified for UEFA Euro 2016 after beating hosts Azerbaijan 3-1. Eder, Stephan El Shaarawy and Manchester United full-back Matteo Darmian netted the goals for the Azzurri.

El Shaarawy and Darmian put Italy back in front after Dimitrij Nazarov actually equalised in the first half to give the Italians a real scare.

Manager Antonio Conte's men looked nervy at the back during the opening 45 minutes. They also grasped the opportunity afforded by facing the Group H minnows to flex some rare attacking muscle.

The potential up front was reflected in Conte's team selection. He opted for Southampton striker Graziano Pelle alongside AS Monaco loanee El Shaarawy.

The UEFA Euro Qualifiers twitter feed detailed Conte's starting 11:

European Qualifiers @EuroQualifiers

Italy: Buffon, De Sciglio, Chiellini, Darmian, Bonucci, Candreva, Verratti, Parolo, Pellè, El Shaarawy, Éder. #EURO2016

To counter, the hosts went with a defensive 4-1-4-1 formation, as noted by Sky Sports.

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It took just over 10 minutes for Eder to open Italy's account. A crisp one-two in midfield ended with Paris Saint-Germain schemer Marco Verratti lofting a delightful pass into the Sampdoria striker's path.

Seconds before, the home side gave the Italians a fright. Veteran stopper Gianluigi Buffon turned away Rahid Amirguliyev's smashed shot. But Italy's quick and fluid, lightning-fast counter only emphasised the gulf in class between the two teams.

Verratti's contribution received high praise, per the Football Italia twitter account:

footballitalia @footballitalia

Magnificent, Pirlo-esque pass from Marco Verratti for Eder's goal! Details http://t.co/4K0Dj9o8T2 #AZEITA http://t.co/aRDW4JZ4kV

WhoScored.com detailed how prolific Eder has been on the international stage recently:

WhoScored.com @WhoScored

Éder: Has now scored 8 goals in his last 11 appearances for club and country #EURO2016

Pelle then had an effort saved after some impressive chest control in the box. The target man's brawn and aerial prowess was causing the home side's defence a ton of problems. Pelle was also linking well with Eder.

Then, just on the half-hour mark, the hosts stunned Italy. Nazarov broke through a muddled defensive line to slot home past Buffon. A simple punt up field had undone the Italians at the back, with the usually reliable Giorgio Chiellini making a mess of a routine clearance.

In terms of the game, Nazarov's goal provided the perfect lift. It raised the noise in the Baku National Arena. It also forced Conte's men out of their slumbers and into attack mode.

Italy's initial answer involved El Shaarawy making more runs off the flank through the middle. But the 22-year-old twice fluffed his lines.

Just when Italy were really starting to creak, another terrific break put them back in front. Hard-running Lazio winger Antonio Candreva, who tormented from the flank all game, teed up El Shaarawy to tap in from close range and give his nation a 2-1 advantage at the break.

The decisive touch ended a prolonged international drought for the inconsistent young forward, according to Opta Paolo:

OptaPaolo @OptaPaolo

2 - El Shaarawy has scored his second goal with Italy - the previous one came in November 2012. Reborn.

A dramatic, leaping, goal-line clearance livened up a very dull start to the second half. Eder lifted in what looked like a precise finish, only to be denied by retreating full-back Rashad Sadygov. Eder's pace was consistently thwarting the home team's offside trap.

But Sadygov's heroics offered only a momentary reprieve. Pressing high, Darmian nicked the ball on the edge of the box and lashed a shot across the 'keeper for Italy's third.

Italy had pounced on Azerbaijan's commendable attempts to keep moving the ball along the ground and play out from the back.

Darmian's goal was the reward for Italy's growing authority in front of goal:

WhoScored.com @WhoScored

Matteo Darmian: Has scored with Italy's 16th shot against Azerbaijan #EURO2016

It also represented a very rare prolific night on Conte's watch:

footballitalia @footballitalia

This is the first time under Antonio Conte that Italy have scored 3 goals. Details http://t.co/4K0Dj9o8T2 #AZEITA http://t.co/L84WkkNfgN

Shaarawy gave way to Alessandro Florenzi, while Eder was subbed for Sebastian Giovinco as Italy sought to see things out. The latter's pace forced Badavi Huseynov into a reckless challenge.

He pulled back the Atomic Ant to receive a straight red card. Giovinco soon crashed a free-kick off the bar as he tried to net his country a fourth.

But Italy didn't need any gloss for a score good enough to ensure qualification. The country now has a great record reaching this particular tournament:

OptaPaolo @OptaPaolo

6 – Italy have qualified for the European Championship for the sixth time in a row (ninth in total). Routine.

In general, qualification has become an art form for the Italians, according to MisterChip (English):

MisterChip (English) @MisterChiping

Italy has gone 49 consecutive qualifying matches (Euro or WC) without a loss. A record never seen before in football history.

Post-Match Reaction

Even though his team wrapped up qualification early, Conte insisted the campaign hasn't been without its challenges:

footballitalia @footballitalia

Antonio Conte said “there was nothing easy” about qualifying for #Euro2016 http://t.co/D6F8ddzuCn #Italy #AZEITA http://t.co/vL9C9sRTLg

His team was the heavyweight of Group H, but Conte stressed how tough the opposition has been:

UEFA Nations League @UEFAEURO

Conte, @azzurri: "We have qualified! People may think it was easy, but that was not the case. It was a very dangerous group." #EURO2016

Meanwhile, Darmian described the feeling of netting a first goal for his country:

footballitalia @footballitalia

Matteo Darmian said it was “emotional” to score his first #Italy goal http://t.co/5tZeaoycrf #AZEITA #MUFC http://t.co/AOwAYVnCrw

Fellow goalscorers El Shaarawy and Eder both highlighted the unity and determination within the squad as keys to Italy's progress:

footballitalia @footballitalia

Stephan El Shaarawy: #Italy beat #Azerbaijan “with concentration, character & heart” http://t.co/7cG3BTBars #AZEITA http://t.co/iDkg9KGgu5

footballitalia @footballitalia

Eder believes “unity is our strength” after #Italy booked their spot at #EURO2016 http://t.co/OBY3dM5DJl #AZEITA http://t.co/qaF7MKfFK9

Despite defeat, Azerbaijan manager Robert Prosinecki can be proud of his team's effort. Prosinecki is trying to imbue his side with the confidence and quality to play a technical game, even against high-profile opposition.

It's an admirable ambition, but one that's going to be increasingly difficult to put into practice.

Italy have earned qualification and showed they have more quality in attack than many may realise. Once the tournament begins, though, Conte must get the balance between stubborn defending and showing enough attacking intent right.

If he can, the Azzurri will be a real force.

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