Italy secured a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Albania to keep pace at the top of UEFA’s Group G as Gianluigi Buffon marked his 1,000th professional appearance with a clean sheet.
Daniele De Rossi’s 12th-minute penalty and Ciro Immobile’s 72nd-minute header proved decisive for Italy to remain tied with Spain at the group’s summit.
It was not all plain sailing for Buffon early on as Albania threatened, but the opener, gifted to De Rossi from the spot, gave Giampiero Ventura’s side a foundation to go on and win the game in Palermo.
Andrea Belotti and Immobile had offered a prolific partnership with six combined goals in Italy’s last two qualifiers and, after a nine-minute delay caused by flares and smokebombs in the stands, the Lazio forward nodded the clinching strike.
Despite this vital victory, Spain’s own 4-1 triumph over Israel leaves the Azzurri trailing in second place in the group with an inferior goal difference at the campaign’s halfway stage.
168 – #Buffon becomes the player with the most caps (168) from the top-5 European National teams (Fra, Ger, Spa, Ita, Eng). Legend. #ITAALB pic.twitter.com/aA1k1Xmvp5
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) March 24, 2017
In contrast to the consistency provided by Buffon’s continued presence in the home goal, Albania were missing regular goalkeeper Etrit Berisha through suspension and were relying on a makeshift back-line to deal with Italy’s in-form forwards.
But the visitors made a rapid start and, with less than a minute on the clock, Sokol Cikalleshi pulled a shot agonisingly wide from Odise Roshi’s smart pass.
After Roshi then drove an effort past the left-hand post from 25 yards, Migjen Basha gave Ventura’s side a foothold in the game as he dragged Belotti to ground inside the area.
De Rossi’s pinpoint penalty fired Italy in front, but they could not kick on from there and Buffon was forced to save at his near post from Roshi.
GOAL!!!! No mistake under pressure from the spot as #DeRossi opens the scoring! #ItalyAlbania 1-0 pic.twitter.com/plxpWDcZ7o
— Italy (@azzurri) March 24, 2017
Although a scrappy opening 40 minutes gave way to an entertaining passage of play heading into the break, Belotti blasted a finish straight at Thomas Strakosha when well placed and Roshi then curled over the top at the other end.
Immobile appealed for a second spot-kick as Arlind Ajeti blocked his close-range strike with a hand, but referee Slavko Vincic was uninterested and the officials soon directed the players off the pitch due to a number of pyrotechnics being thrown from the away end.
When the teams returned – a handful of Albania players pleading with their supporters for calm – Strakosha gathered Antonio Candreva’s drilled shot from distance and then blocked from the same man inside the six-yard box.
With Albania struggling, a second goal seemed inevitable and duly arrived as Immobile directed a header across the goalkeeper and into the bottom-right corner from Davide Zappacosta’s superb centre to put the game to bed.
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