Italy performed at its best amid scandal again, cruising to a 3-0 win over Estonia on Friday to maintain a five-point lead in its European Championship qualifying group.
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United States-born forward Giuseppe Rossi put Italy in front in the 21st minute at the Alberto Braglia stadium after being set by Cassano, who doubled the lead in the 39th from a Riccardo Montolivo pass.
Giampaolo Pazzini added a third goal by finishing off a counterattack in the 68th, and Rossi and Andrea Pirlo also hit the post in a dazzling display from the Azzurri.
”We really wanted to control the game and I think we also played good football,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said.
The match came three days after the latest match-fixing scandal to rock the national sport resulted in 16 arrests up and down Italy, with numerous more under investigation for allegedly arranging games.
”From this morning on we focused explicitly on the match,” Prandelli said. ”We tried to block everything else out and we came out onto the pitch with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Italy won the 2006 World Cup at the height of the previous major match-fixing scandal, and the Azzurri won the 1982 title in the wake of a widespread betting scandal much like the one that surfaced this week.
Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi was linked to the latest scandal in Italian media earlier Friday, but the prosecutor in Cremona leading the investigation quickly announced that the Roma player was not involved.
While De Rossi was not in the squad for this match, the news was not taken lightly by his teammates.
”Just because he’s such a big name they wanted to put him on the front page. Sometimes it’s a lack of respect,” goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said.
Italy is five points ahead of Slovenia in Group C, with Serbia eight points back and Estonia nine points behind.
The Azzurri have now won five of their six qualifiers, with their only hiccup a 0-0 draw at Northern Ireland in October – showing Italy has regained some of its swagger after an embarrassing first-round elimination from the World Cup.
Rossi was one of the last to be cut by former coach Marcello Lippi from Italy’s squad in South Africa last year and he responded by scoring 32 goals for Villarreal in all competitions in the season that ended last month – prompting speculation he could be headed to European champion Barcelona.
”He has really become a reference point for us,” Prandelli said. ”He realizes what he’s capable of now. He knows how to play with his teammates and he really moves well in the area. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Alberto Aquilani directed Cassano and Rossi in Italy’s 4-3-1-2 formation, while Estonia responded with a traditional 4-4-2 spearheaded by Tarmo Kink and Sergei Zenjov.
Italy immediately took control but Cassano wasted two early opportunities, shooting directly at the goalkeeper in both the seventh and 13th minutes – with the second coming from an excellent set up by Rossi, who then nearly scored with a header from the ensuing corner in the 14th.
Five minutes later, Rossi collected an excellent through ball but had his shot blocked by Estonia goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko.
Shortly after Rossi’s goal, Aquilani walked off with a head injury and was replaced by Palermo’s Antonio Nocerino, prompting Prandelli to move Montolivo into the playmaker position.
Kink had a rare shot on goal for Estonia in the 20th but it was controlled easily by Buffon.
Rossi’s shot off the post came in the 30th, while Pirlo found the goalframe from a free kick in the 66th.
Cassano and Rossi both exited to standing ovations when they were substituted during the second half.
Italy next faces Ireland in a friendly in Liege, Belgium, on Tuesday, while Estonia visits the Faeroe Islands for another qualifier.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Christian Maggio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Ranocchia, Federico Balzaretti, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Alberto Aquilani (Antonio Nocerino, 24), Antonio Cassano (Giampaolo Pazzini, 65), Giuseppe Rossi (Sebastian Giovinco, 79).
Estonia: Sergei Pareiko, Enar Jaager, Taavi Rahn, Raio Piiroja, Taijo Teniste (Kaimar Saag, 58), Sander Puri, Martin Vunk, Ragnar Klavan, Dmitri Kruglov, Tarmo Kink (Gert Kams, 79), Sergei Zenjov (Jarmo Ahjupera, 58).