Italy 2-1 Albania: Euro champs survive scare and kickstart campaign

Italy 2-1 Albania: Euro champs survive scare and kickstart campaign

A dire beginning and a fast start. Somehow Italy managed to pull off both in opening their defence of the European crown with a victory despite falling so spectacularly over their own feet inside 23 seconds.

That was the time it took for Federico Dimarco to make calamitous hash of a throw-in and for Nedim Bajrami, of Sassuolo in Italy’s Serie B, to score the quickest goal in the history of this tournament.

For the most fleeting of periods, what a magnificent thing that was. Magnificent for the vast crowds of Albanians who colonised a city and then a stadium and magnificent for Bajrami, who became only the second man from his nation to score at one of these major gatherings. Magnificent for those who enjoy seeing a giant rattled, too.

But what came next might be termed the English syndrome. Just as Gareth Southgate’s side made the mistake of following an early goal by attempting to wait out Italian pressure in the final three years ago, so did the team led by the former Arsenal left-back Sylvinho.

It bought them all of 10 minutes before Alessandro Bastoni levelled and a short while later Nicolo Barella had Italy at 2-1 and cruising. Had they taken their chances, it could have been four or five, but that is why expectations are so muted around Luciano Spalletti’s young, transitional team, because their failure to convert has become a glaring issue.

Italy survived a late scare to seal a 2-1 victory against Albania in their Euro 2024 opening game

Nedim Bajrami (pictured) scored the fastest goal in the history of the European Championships

Nedim Bajrami (pictured) scored the fastest goal in the history of the European Championships

That much was clear in an unconvincing qualification campaign and indeed it has been a growing narrative since the night at Wembley when they beat England on penalties. Only nine men have retained the shirt since that win and Roberto Mancini has also gone, so what remains are champions in name more than composition.

Time will tell how that manifests itself in a tough group comprising Croatia and Spain, but for now, Italy have avoided a serious upset in the kind of environment where they can happen.

That’s because this was the closest thing Sylvinho’s side will experience to a home match outside of their borders.

Local reports had indicated 50,000 of Albania’s population of 2.8million had made this journey, joining up with the sizeable chunk of their compatriots who permanently relocated to Germany at some stage down the line. Together they took over the city – by kick-off Dortmund’s famed South Bank stand, home of the Yellow Wall, was two-thirds red.

They came for a party, those folks, and a party they had in good scores and bad. We ought to reiterate here that there was a touch of fortune about their small piece of history, Dimarco’s meltdown in thinking when he attempted a throw-in back to Alessandro Bastoni in his own six-yard box.

Federico Dimarco (pictured) had made a hash of a throw-in allowing Bajrami to score early on

Federico Dimarco (pictured) had made a hash of a throw-in allowing Bajrami to score early on

Spalletti (pictured) cut an animated figure on the touchline after his side's sluggish start

Spalletti (pictured) cut an animated figure on the touchline after his side’s sluggish start 

Dimarco might have been the only man in the ground to miss the lurking presence of Bajrami near the edge of the area, so that’s a mistake worth noting, but the Albanian’s drive inside the near post after pulling off the interception was both a cracking finish and a great moment. Tournaments thrive when underdogs do well, so that was an early plus.

Not that it lasted long. Within a minute Lorenzo Pellegrini had fluffed a clear chance to level and after a further nine of uninterrupted pressure Italy had crashed through. Pellegrini was key to the move, having collected a short corner and whipped a fiendish, inswinging cross to the back post for Bastoni. 

Helped by Taulent Seferi’s loose marking, Bastoni’s header past Brentford’s substitute goalkeeper, Thomas Strakosha, corrected some of the early giddiness.

Prospects of an upset quickly took another big hit, this time with a beauty of a half volley from Nicolo Barella, whose fitness had been a concern for Spalletti. You can see why – the Inter Milan midfielder is a useful hybrid of styles, capable of defensive work and beautiful flourishes. This strike was one of the latter.

Nicolo Barella (pictured) had Italy at 2-1 and cruising with a sensational strike from the edge of the box

Nicolo Barella (pictured) had Italy at 2-1 and cruising with a sensational strike from the edge of the box

From there, Italy’s Davide Frattesi chipped against the post with Albania left open by their need to chase the game and Gianluca Scamacca, so strong for Atalanta and far more ineffective for his country, also blew a decent opening. It meant that going into the second half, Albania still had a chance.

Within 10 minutes of the restart, that was still the case, but only because a heavy touch from Frattesi robbed him of a one on one. In time, Federico Chiesa and Frattesi would have strong chances for that third and by then Albania had still amassed only a single shot on goal – their first of the match. 

Had Rey Manaj put that right when he went clear in the final seconds, only to chip across goal and a fraction wide, Italy would have suffered a stiff lesson rather than incurring a mere warning about their finishing.

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