Italy kicked off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a straightforward 2-0 win over Northern Ireland at Stadio Ennio Tardini on Thursday.
The Azzurri entered the contest without defeat in 22 games and that unbeaten run never looked under threat from the moment Domenico Berardi opened the scoring 14 minutes in.
Ciro Immobile doubled the lead for Roberto Mancini’s in-form side seven minutes before half-time and the hosts saw out victory despite an improved Northern Ireland display in the second period.
The win moves Italy level on three points with second seeds Switzerland – 3-1 victors against Bulgaria earlier on Thursday – at the top of Group C after their opening fixtures.
Northern Ireland were given an early warning when Immobile chested down Alessandro Florenzi’s floated pass and fired straight at Bailey Peacock-Farrell, but there was no stopping Berardi’s strike three minutes later.
The Sassuolo forward was played into space down the right by Florenzi and lifted the ball away from Peacock-Farrell at his near post to become the first Italy player to score in three successive matches under Mancini.
Italy continued to patiently probe away and had a second goal through Immobile’s drive past Peacock-Farrell – again at the visiting keeper’s front post – after being played in by Lorenzo Insigne on the counter.
Gianluigi Donnarumma was called into action twice in quick succession 11 minutes into the second half to keep out Gavin Whyte’s volley and Michael Smith’s follow-up attempt.
Milan stopper Donnarumma was the busier of the two goalkeepers in the second period, with Craig Cathcart and Steven Davis the next players to be denied, but there was to be no way through as Mancini’s men triumphed again.
What does it mean? Tougher tests to come for Italy
Italy missed out on Russia 2018 – the first World Cup they had not participated in since 1958 – but they are now looking to make up for lost time under Mancini.
The Azzurri are among the favourites to win Euro 2020 later this year, having qualified with 10 wins from 10, and they will also take part in October’s Nations League Finals.
Qualifying for the next World Cup is a must and Italy, who have now won four games in a row without conceding, will likely be pushed all the way by Switzerland for top spot.
Immobile’s big impact
Berardi has scored in three successive games, while strike partner Immobile has also made himself undroppable in Italy’s forward line with his recent performances.
With his first-half strike here, from one of three attempts on target, Immobile has now been involved in seven goals (four goals, three assists) in his past seven international starts. He also created four chances in Parma.
Bailey beaten too easily
Berardi and Immobile each netted when the angle was perhaps against them and Peacock-Farrell should have done more to keep out both strikes – the second in particular.
The Northern Ireland keeper did make three saves, each of those in the first half, and will argue his defence likewise hardly covered themselves in glory.
Key Opta Facts
– Italy remain unbeaten at home in World Cup qualifiers, with this being their 56th such game without suffering a defeat (W47 D9).
– Northern Ireland are winless in their past five World Cup qualifying games (D1 L4), while they have failed to score in each of the last four.
– Northern Ireland have only kept one clean sheet in their past 14 games (0-0 against the Netherlands in November 2019) and none in their most recent 10 outings.
– Steven Davis won his 125th Northern Ireland cap, equalling Peter Shilton’s record for international caps for a British nation.
Italy take on Bulgaria in Sofia on Sunday in their second Group C match, while Northern Ireland host the United States in a Belfast friendly on the same day.
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