Former European champions Italy made certain of their place at Euro 2016 with a 3-1 win over Group H rivals Azerbaijan at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium on Saturday.
The group leaders needed one win from their final two qualifiers and goals from Eder, Stephan El Shaarawy and Matteo Darmian ensured they go into Tuesday’s qualification finale with Norway assured of their spot in France next year.
Antonio Conte – without Domenico Berardi, Andrea Pirlo and Lorenzo Insigne due to injury – saw his side lead early on courtesy of Eder’s second international goal as he finished off a Pirlo-esque pass from Marco Verratti.
Dima Nazarov levelled for Robert Prosinecki’s Azerbaijan, who had demonstrated solidity in qualification with three straight draws, but El Shaarawy put Italy back in front before half-time.
Italy’s bold formation resembled a 4-2-4 at times, Antonio Candreva and El Shaarawy often occupying advanced roles on the flanks, but it was full-back Darmian who sealed the result with his first international goal shortly after the hour.
The visitors were spared a nervy finale as Badavi Huseynov was sent off for a challenge on Sebastian Giovinco, the visitors now able to focus on preparations for Conte’s first competition in charge.
Italy were bright early on as Conte’s attacking formation showed promise, but Rahid Amirguliyev had the first effort on target when his deflected shot was gathered by Gianluigi Buffon.
Amirguliyev’s curled shot from distance also tested the Italy goalkeeper before Eder’s 11th-minute opener.
The Sampdoria man timed his run to beat the offside trap and collect Verratti’s expert pass before prodding the ball past Kamran Agayev to settle any Italian nerves.
Eder almost turned provider for strike partner Graziano Pelle soon after – Agayev equal to the Southampton forward’s close-range effort – but Prosinecki’s men remained disciplined in possession and got their reward on the half-hour.
After Giorgio Chiellini sliced an attempted clearance, Leonardo Bonucci could only head the ball back towards his own goal, with Nazarov able to coolly slide the ball past Buffon.
However, after El Shaarawy had twice gone close to restoring Italy’s lead, the Monaco man tapped into an open net following Candreva’s pass to give the visitors a half-time advantage.
Buoyed by El Shaarawy’s finish prior to the break, Italy started the second half on the front foot and Eder came close to a second when he clipped an effort over the onrushing Agayev only for captain Rashad Sadygov to clear off the line.
Italy eventually got their third courtesy of defender Darmian 25 minutes from time as the Manchester United man shrugged Nazarov off the ball before producing a finish from distance.
Giovinco almost made the result more flattering for Italy when his free-kick hit the crossbar, having been hauled down by last man Huseynov, with Conte’s men now looking to wrap up an unbeaten qualification campaign against Norway in Rome next week.
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