Russian Roulette: Narrow Win Sends Azzurri to World Cup Playoff

When Antonio Candreva managed to throw the ball into Albania’s net, with 15 minutes still to play into the final World Cup 2018 qualification match, tension finally released among the Azzurri – who collectively run to mass-hug tonight’s only scorer. The lone goal by Internazionale’s midfielder allowed Italy to leave Shkoder with a 1-0 win over Albania, and secured them a spot among the Top 4 seed teams at the November playoff draw.

This means, at least on paper, the possibility to be paired against an easier opponent for the upcoming, decisive two-leg round with a ticket to Russia up for grabs – but tonight’s abulic performance showed once more that, for the time being, there is no such thing as an easy game for a National team that seems to have lost their identity.

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Antonio Candreva has just put the ball in the net for Italy’s final 1-0

But the wild celebrating bunch, with every single member of the staff running from the bench to hug Candreva, is a positive image, and showed that the team spirit is strong or at least recovering after hitting rock bottom with Macedonia last Friday. Rumors have it that, after the disappointing 1-1 home tie, a confrontation took place within the Team, with players calling for a closed-door meeting among themselves – no technical staff allowed – the following day.

Additional rumors of an internal opposition to coach Gian Piero Ventura were promptly defused in a joint press conference by Ventura himself and Captain Gianluigi Buffon, yet Ventura did not celebrate at Candreva’s goal, and was literally the only staff member not to join the collective rejoicing.

The Italian coach has much to think about despite the minimal victory that blew clouds away for the time being: After the game, he rightly highlighted that Italy conceded too much to Albania, giving the side trained by former azzurro Christian Panucci multiple chances to score as a consequence of individual mistakes. Buffon had to go the extra mile to deflect a perilous shot by Eros Grezda – triggered by Davide Zappacosta’s carelessness; Giorgio Chiellini prevented the Albanians from equalising with a desperate slide to clear the ball out of the Azzurri’s box.

Ventura’s 4-2-4 module, which he promptly came back to after switching to 3-4-3 only a few days ago, should provide for plenty of scoring chances – yet the only opportunities for Italy came from a flurry of confused crosses from the side flanks, mostly the right one, where Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva confirmed to have a better harmony than their counterparts on the opposite side, Lorenzo Insigne (another performance below the line for Napoli’s jewel…) and Leonardo Spinazzola.

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Lorenzo Insigne, a key driver in Napoli’s astounding Serie A start, continues to under-perform when playing for the Azzurri

In the end, it was a cross by Atalanta’s “rebel” left back to serve Candreva a golden opportunity to break the balance – with Inter’s winger jumping at the chance to deliver a powerful shot past his former teammate at Lazio Erit Berisha’s goal. As Italy put their head ahead, Christian Panucci’s side loosened up looking to rebalance the game, and this provided for some entertainment in a match that had offered little to remember up to that point.

Italian-Brazilian striker Eder found more space to dialogue with Ciro Immobile, who devoured a chance to score the second goal hitting Berisha with a close-range shot. On the other hand, Christian Panucci’s boys kept pushing for an equaliser, but evidenced the lack of a true striker – much to the luck of Ventura, who called for his team to maintain the ball possession in the last minutes, conscious that the mission in Shkoder, Albania, was basically coming home with three points, and a place among the top four runner-ups in view of the November playoff.

Captain Buffon led the Azzurri to gather after the victorious game and run under the stands to thank those 100 courageous, devote supporters who crossed the Adriatic Sea to see the Nazionale playing. Full credit to them, as it indeed takes an act of faith to follow with enthusiasm a national squad whose ongoing identity crisis cannot be masked by yet another 1-0 win. It will take more than what seen tonight, to gain the right to participate to next year’s football fest in Russia.

MATCH REPORT

ALBANIA-ITALY 0-1

SCORER: 73′ Candreva

ALBANIA (4-3-3): Berisha; Hysaj, Veseli, Mavraj, Agolli; Kace, Basha (68′ Lila), Memushaj (76′ Latifi); Roshi (90′ Ahmedi), Sadiku, Grezda. (Kolici, Hoxha, Ajeti, Lenjani, Djimsiti, Balliu, Memolla, Ndoj). Coach: Panucci
ITALY (4-2-4): Buffon; Darmian (61′ Zappacosta), Bonucci, Chiellini, Spinazzola; Parolo, Gagliardini; Candreva, Immobile, Eder (89′ Gabbiadini), Insigne (92′ El Shaarawy). (Donnarumma, Perin, Zappacosta, Astori, Rugani, D’Ambrosio, Barella, Cristante, Bernardeschi, Inglese). Coach: Ventura.

REFEREE: Oddvar Moen (Norway)
NOTES: Yellow card: Chiellini (I); Extra Time: 0′ 1st half, 3′ 2nd half

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