Soccer-Italy see off Albania after record early scare


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group B - Italy v Albania - Dortmund BVB Stadion, Dortmund, Germany - June 15, 2024 Albania's Jasir Asani in action with Italy's Riccardo Calafiori REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

DORTMUND, Germany (Reuters) -Italy recovered from the shock of conceding the fastest goal ever scored at a European Championship to beat Albania 2-1 on Saturday as Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barella ensured the defending champions made a winning start to the tournament.

Tens of thousands of raucous, red-shirted Albania fans had the Dortmund BVB Stadion rocking when Nedim Bajrami blasted home from an angle after 23 seconds, capitalising on a rash throw-in by defender Federico Dimarco.

The goal smashed the previous record held by Russia's Dmitri Kirichenko who scored after 67 seconds against Greece in 2004.

Amid the din, however, Italy held their nerve and equalised in the 11th minute when Bastoni headed home when a short corner was swung in to the far post by Lorenzo Pellegrini.

Barella put the Azzurri in front five minutes later when he slammed home from outside the box.

Davide Frattesi almost extended the Italians' lead in the 34th minute but Albanian goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha tipped his chipped shot on to the post.

Despite fielding a team packed with Serie A players, Albania were left chasing shadows for much of the game as the new-look side assembled by Italy coach Luciano Spalletti dominated with neat and fast passing, albeit without creating many chances.

Central defender Riccardo Calafiori impressed on only his third international appearance as he took the place of more experienced team mates out with injuries.

Spalletti, who led Napoli to the Serie A title a year ago, took over the national team in September when Roberto Mancini controversially switched to coach Saudi Arabia, having guided Italy to victory at Euro 2020.

Spalletti praised his players for not allowing the early setback to upset them.

"They were great because they all shared in the difficulty that the team was facing and they did the right thing. No one threw their arms up in air," he said.

"They showed that they are a strong team in terms of character. I am happy with them. But there are lots of things that need to improve."

Albania coach Sylvinho said his players had felt the tension as the national team embarked on only their second major tournament.

"It wasn't easy for us," - the former Brazil told Sky Sport television. "We have young players and there was some nervousness. Italy are a strong side and we were in a battle with them. The lads did well."

The tournament in Germany is an important stepping stone for Italy's hopes of returning to the World Cup after failing to qualify for world soccer's showpiece event in 2018 and 2022.

Victory for Italy was vital in the toughest group in the tournament and a bigger test will come on Thursday when they face Spain, who comfortably beat Croatia 3-0 in Berlin. Albania play Croatia on Wednesday in Group B.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin, edting by Ed Osmond)

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