Soccer-Hero Zaccagni picks perfect time to score first goal for Italy


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group B - Croatia v Italy - Leipzig Stadium, Leipzig, Germany - June 24, 2024 Italy's Mattia Zaccagni celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Lee Smith

LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) - Holders Italy looked like they would have to sweat on prolonging their stay at Euro 2024 before substitute Mattia Zaccagni chose the perfect moment to score his first international goal and snatch a 1-1 draw with Croatia deep into added time.

The result sent Italy through to the last 16, where they will face Switzerland, and Luciano Spalletti sending on winger Zaccagni for defender Matteo Darmian with nine minutes remaining now seems like a masterstroke from the manager.

Spalletti made three changes from the side that were completely dominated by Spain in their 1-0 loss in the previous game, with striker Gianluca Scamacca one of those to make way having failed to impress in the opening two group games.

Matteo Retegui was the man chosen up front and, while he had a couple of first-half chances deflected wide for corners, he never really found a clean shot on goal. When Italy fell behind, Spalletti was therefore forced into desperate measures.

Italy pushed for an equaliser, knowing all they needed was a draw to advance, having gone behind to a Luka Modric goal less than a minute after Gianluigi Donnarumma had saved his penalty.

Spalletti's immediate response was to send on Federico Chiesa, another player dropped after the first two games, but with the match into the last 10 minutes Zaccagni made his entrance.

The forward had also come on against Spain but on that occasion there was no way back into a contest which, despite Italy only losing to an own-goal, was well beyond their reach.

On this occasion, the Italians looked much more likely to grab the goal that would break Croatian hearts, but few could have predicted the player who would be the hero of Leipzig.

TECHNICAL QUALITY

Zaccagni made just two substitute appearances in Italy's four warm-up friendlies this year but before the game with Turkey this month, despite the Lazio player again starting on the bench, Spalletti spoke strongly in his favour.

"Zaccagni is another one who has a delicious technical quality, combined with flair and imagination," he said.

Zaccagni showed that in spades in the 98th minute against Croatia, at a time when Italy needed a moment of magic.

Riccardo Calafiori burst through the middle before laying a pass off to Zaccagni just inside the area and he struck the ball first time, curling it into the far top corner beyond the despairing dive of goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

"Immense satisfaction, I'm excited, it's a beautiful evening. It was important to draw it (the match) to qualify as runners-up," Zaccagni said.

"You always suffer both on the bench and on the pitch, we did well to stay in the game with a great second half. We deserved this draw."

Italy's fans were outnumbered in the stands but in the end it was the Azzurri supporters who could celebrate in Leipzig, staying behind long after the game had ended, with a delighted Spalletti coming out to greet them and take the acclaim.

On a night when Croatia brought the noise, it was Italy who claimed the prize, and super-sub Zaccagni put his name on the list of Italian footballing heroes, keeping alive their hopes of retaining their title in Germany.

(Reporting by Trevor Stynes; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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