MILAN (AFP) – Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini struck three times, including a late own-goal, as Italy survived a nervous finish to claim a precious 2-1 Euro 2016 qualifying win over Group H rivals Azerbaijan in Palermo on Friday.
The Stadio Barbera had yet to see a win this season amid promoted Palermo’s poor start in Serie A, and it looked like little would change after Chiellini turned into his own net in the 77th minute having given Italy a 44th minute lead.
However Italy coach Antonio Conte made a number of late changes as the match drew to a close and a late burst of pace in the closing 10 minutes saw Chiellini power a fine header past Kamran Agayev in the 82nd minute to wrap up the points.
“It would have been a great pity if we hadn’t won tonight,” Chiellini told Rai.
“We all showed what we’re capable of and I think the public appreciated our performance.
“This is a win that will serve us well for the future.”
Italy now have two wins from two after their 2-0 opening win over Norway in Oslo last month and lead the group.
“The lads put in a good performance but we have to be more clinical,” Conte told Rai after the game.
“There was little else they could have improved on.”
Azerbaijan coach Berti Vogts had to do without a number of key players due to injury, and the visitors suffered throughout a one-sided opening half in which Italy consistently piled on the pressure.
Claudio Marchisio was set up nicely by Ciro Immobile in the opening minutes but fired over from close range while Leonardo Bonucci’s long-range effort was deflected by Simone Zaza and forced Agayev to parry.
Bonucci saw a diving header saved by the ‘keeper from Andrea Pirlo’s corner and the Juve defender came close again after sliding in to meet Immobile cross.
Inter centre-back Andrea Ranocchia then headed over from Pirlo’s free kick, but Italy took a welcome lead on the stroke of half time.
Agayev misjudged a Pirlo corner to allow Chiellini, who was the victim of the notorious Luis Suarez biting incident at the World Cup, to power a header home from six yards.
Azerbaijan had lost 2-1 to Bulgaria in their opener and looked to be heading for certain defeat as the Azzurri resumed in positive fashion after the half-time interval.
But again, chances went a begging with Zaza notably going close with a stunning overhead kick from just inside the area.
Pirlo, Alessandro Florenzi and then Matteo Darmian made way for Alberto Aquilani, Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Candreva respectively, and the changes added the required injection of pace.
But just as Italy upped the momentum, disaster struck when Chiellini turned the ball into his own net on the goalline after
Gianluigi Buffon failed to get his hands on a corner whipped in from the left.
Italy pushed forward and were rewarded eight minutes from time when Chiellini fired a glancing header from Giovinco’s cross past a rooted Agayev.
Giovinco should have made it 3-0 but saw his looping drive from Marchisio’s through ball smack off the crossbar.