Germany become the first nation to qualify for next summer’s European Championship with 6-2 victory over Austria.
|Pazzini scores late on to seal Euro action for Italy who were eliminated early in the 2010 World Cup [GALLO/GETTY]|
Substitute Giampaolo Pazzini scored in the 85th minute to give Italy a 1-0 win over Slovenia and qualification for Euro 2012 with two matches to spare on Tuesday.
Italy hold an insurmountable eight-point lead over Serbia in Group C.
The Azzurri have 22 points, Serbia 14, Estonia 13, Slovenia 11, Northern Ireland nine and the Faeroe Islands four.
With the stands half-empty at the Artemio Franchi stadium, the atmosphere was stale until Pazzini’s goal. Fellow substitute Mario Balotelli then nearly doubled the lead with two more chances in the final five minutes as the crowd finally grew to life.
With seven wins and a draw in qualifying, Italy have conceded just one goal – to Sergei Zenjov during Italy’s 2-1 win over Estonia a year ago in their first qualifier – while managed by Cesare Prandelli.
With a players’ strike having wiped out the opening weekend of Serie A, Italy also struggled to find the target for long stretches in a 1-0 win over the Faeroe Islands on Friday. This time, though, Prandelli’s subsitutions paid off, and the Azzurri can now play their final two qualifiers against Serbia and Northern Ireland without any pressure.
Strikes and squabbles
The small crowd of 18,000 was due to a couple of factors: A general strike limiting transport options to the stadium and sour relations between the local Fiorentina fans and club captain Riccardo Montolivo, a key Italy midfielder who wanted to leave the club.
At the start, Italy took the initiative immediately with a shot from Giuseppe Rossi after just 25 seconds that Slovenia goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic blocked.
Montolivo then missed a header wide in the third minute following a perfect cross from Federico Balzaretti, and Daniele De Rossi shot wide in the sixth after collecting a through ball from Montolivo.
While Slovenia struggled to organise their attack, Italy threatened again in the 18th when Antonio Cassano set up Rossi in the center of the area, but the United States-born forward shot wide.
Slovenia’s first scoring chance didn’t come until the 20th, when Dare Vrsic sent a powerful shot toward the target that Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon did well to block.
Thiago Motta, who scored in Italy’s 1-0 win over Slovenia in March, argued to no avail for a penalty after he looked to be tripped just in front of the goal in the 24th.
Five minutes later, Italy had perhaps its best chance of the half, but De Rossi couldn’t redirect a pass from Montolivo from point-blank range.
Slovenia captain Robert Koren, who plays for Hull City in England, had his squad’s second chance in the 36th with another long shot that Buffon dived to push away, and teammate Andraz Kirm had a similar attempt four minutes later that Buffon had an easier time handling.
With Italy’s previous attempts inside the area having come up short, Cassano also shot from outside the area in the 42nd, skimming the ball over the bar.
Neither side threatened much at the start of the second half and Prandelli made a change in attack in the 61st, replacing Cassano with Pazzini.
The Azzurri had three consecutive chances in the 68th but wasted all of them.
First, De Rossi failed to convert from close-range after a corner, then none of the Azzurri could knock in the rebound and finally Rossi shot high.
Slovenia forward Milivoje Novakovic inexplicably failed to collect a through ball all alone behind Italy’s defence in the 71st and Mario Balotelli came on for Montolivo in the 75th for Italy’s final assaults – which turned out to be productive.
When Pazzini pounced with five minutes to go it gave Italy an unassailable eight-point lead over second-placed Serbia with both teams having only two matches to play.