Italy defeats Slovenia 1-0 in Group C
Substitute Giampaolo Pazzini scored in the 85th minute to give Italy a 1-0 win over Slovenia and qualification for Euro 2012 from Group C with two matches to spare on Tuesday.
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Italy had created numerous chances but was unable to find the target until Pazzini took a pass from Claudio Marchisio and beat goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic with an angled shot from six meters (yards).
''This was a big goal. I like all my goals, but this one was important for qualifying mathematically,'' said Pazzini, who has scored three goals in 21 appearances.
The qualification comes little more than a year after Italy's embarrassing first-round elimination from the World Cup, with new coach Cesare Prandelli having infused fresh energy into the squad after replacing Marcello Lippi.
''Obviously we still need to improve a lot, but the players are encouraging each other with these performances,'' Prandelli said. ''I'm satisfied, because to start from zero and give a squad an identity is an achievement.
''This was a victory of courage,'' added Prandelli, who had three forwards on at the end with another substitute, Mario Balotelli, and Giuseppe Rossi. ''We owned the midfield but we couldn't push through, so at a certain point we decided to use three forwards.''
Italy holds 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.
''In theory we still have some chance of qualifying,'' said Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek. ''After a bad loss to Estonia we bounced back well and I'm pleased with the squad.''
With the stands half-empty at the Artemio Franchi stadium, the atmosphere was stale until Pazzini's goal. Balotelli then nearly doubled the lead with two more chances in the final five minutes as the crowd finally grew to life.
''They closed their defense down a lot and we just needed a goal to get some more space, and you could see that after we scored,'' Prandelli said.
With seven wins and a draw in qualifying, Italy has allowed just one goal - to Sergei Zenjov during Italy's 2-1 win over Estonia a year ago in its first qualifier under 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 substitutions paid off, and the Azzurri can now play their final two qualifiers against Serbia and Northern Ireland without any pressure.
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.
''We're trying to bring more fans to the stadium through our performances,'' said Prandelli, who received a warm applause from the crowd, having coached Fiorentina for five seasons before taking over the national team.
At the start, Italy took the initiative immediately with a shot from 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 organize its 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 defense in the 71st and Mario Balotelli came on for Montolivo in the 75th for Italy's final assaults - which turned out to be productive.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Mattia Cassani, Andrea Ranocchia, Giorgio Chiellini, Federico Balzaretti, Thiago Motta (Claudio Marchisio, 46), Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo (Mario Balotelli, 75), Antonio Cassano (Giampaolo Pazzini, 61), Giuseppe Rossi.
Slovenia: Jasmin Handanovic, Miso Brecko, Bojan Jokic, Marko Suler, Bostjan Cesar, Valter Birsa (Josip Ilicic, 56), Andraz Kirm, Aleksander Radosavljevic, Robert Koren, Milivoje Novakovic, Dare Vrsic (Nejc Pecnik, 75).