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Italy recover to beat Albania, Spain cruise

2024-06-16 HKT 06:42
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  • Nedim Bajrami celebrates scoring the fastest goal ever at a European Championship. Photo: Reuters
    Nedim Bajrami celebrates scoring the fastest goal ever at a European Championship. Photo: Reuters
Italy recovered from conceding the fastest goal in the competition's history to get their defence of the European Championship title off to a winning start on Saturday as they came back to beat Albania 2-1 in front of a partisan crowd.

Nedim Bajrami stunned the Italians and delighted a huge Albanian support in Dortmund as he smashed in the opener after just 23 seconds, his strike pulverising the previous record for the quickest goal at the Euros of 67 seconds by Dmitri Kirichenko of Russia in 2004.

Yet Italy's response to falling behind was quick too, as Alessandro Bastoni headed the Azzurri level on 11 minutes and Nicolo Barella's glorious effort put them ahead just past the quarter-hour mark.

From then on Luciano Spalletti's team looked much more assured, although they really should have won by a greater margin rather than face an anxious finale as Albania pushed for an equaliser.

Their performance – the first 23 seconds apart – was largely encouraging before an enticing showdown with fellow heavyweights Spain in nearby Gelsenkirchen next Thursday.

Italy are in some ways an unknown quantity coming into this tournament, with the reigning champions having also missed the last two World Cups and failed to fully convince during qualifying.

Only five of Italy's line-up at kick-off here started the final of the last Euros three years ago, with a new-look team featuring Bologna centre-back Riccardo Calafiori winning just his third cap.

Albania, though, are appearing at just their second major tournament having also gone to Euro 2016.

The novelty of the experience for them helps explain why the home of Borussia Dortmund was a sea of excitable Albanian fans decked in red and black who made up the vast majority of the crowd.

They could hardly believe it when their team, coached by the Brazilian former Arsenal and Barcelona left-back Sylvinho, opened the scoring almost straight from kick-off.

Italy's Federico Dimarco took a throw from the left-back position but played it loosely back into his own box. Bastoni was caught on the back foot, and Bajrami – who plays in Italy for Sassuolo – pounced to control and fire past Gianluigi Donnarumma at the goalkeeper's near post.

It was a similar start to Italy's last European Championship match, when Luke Shaw put England ahead inside two minutes in the final at Wembley in 2021 before the Azzurri came back to win on penalties.

This time they drew level when Dimarco and Lorenzo Pellegrini played a short corner routine on the left before the latter crossed for Inter Milan centre-back Bastoni to head in at the back post.

Italy had regained their composure and soon went in front on 16 minutes, a Jasir Asani clearance dropping straight to another Inter player in Barella, who made the cleanest of contacts at the edge of the area to send a first-time shot past goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha.

They should have added to their lead before the interval, with Davide Frattesi hitting the post after meeting a lovely reverse pass by Gianluca Scamacca in the box.

Scamacca was then denied by Strakosha, while Fedrico Chiesa curled a shot just wide on the hour mark.

Italy then sat back, but Albania did not manage another attempt on target and the second-lowest ranked nation in the competition could not find an equaliser despite their best efforts late on.

Substitute Rey Manaj came closest after getting in behind in the 90th minute, but he could not beat Donnarumma.

Earlier, Spain made a dream start to Euro 2024 as Alvaro Morata scored in a statement 3-0 victory over Croatia in Berlin, with Lamine Yamal becoming the youngest player in the competition's history.

The three-time European champions have often been accused of being toothless in attack during recent major tournaments, but produced an eye-catching display at the Olympiastadion to cut apart a disappointing Croatia.

Morata broke the deadlock in the 29th minute with his seventh Euros goal, moving joint-third on the all-time list alongside Alan Shearer and Antoine Griezmann.

Fabian Ruiz added a second shortly afterwards with a wonderful individual strike.

Yamal made his mark with the assist for Dani Carvajal to effectively kill the game as a contest on the stroke of half-time, while Croatia striker Bruno Petkovic missed a late penalty.

This repeat of last year's Nations League final, won by Spain on penalties after a 0-0 draw, suggests La Roja are capable of contending for a record-breaking fourth European Championship title.

World Cup semi-finalists Croatia, though, have it all to do if they are to reach the knockout phase for a fifth consecutive major tournament, with games against Albania and holders Italy to come in a difficult Group B.

Luka Modric, so often their inspiration, was substituted midway through the second half by coach Zlatko Dalic.

Spain boss Luis de la Fuente named an exciting starting XI, including wingers Nico Williams and Yamal.

The Barcelona starlet, 16 years and 338 days old, beat the previous record for youngest player at a Euros held by Polish international Kacper Kozlowski, who played at Euro 2020 at 17 years and 246 days old.

Croatia enjoyed the vast majority of support from the stands, with their fans holding up one huge banner during their national anthem, reading "When we get going, heaven and earth will burn".

But Croatia started slowly, as Spain dominated possession in trademark fashion.

Spain also showed their increasing versatility under De la Fuente with their first goal, as one excellent through ball from inside his own half by Ruiz sent Morata clean through and the captain made no mistake with a cool finish past a stranded Dominik Livakovic.

Ruiz put Spain in total control just three minutes later, jinking past two Croatia defenders inside the box before shooting through the legs of Josip Sutalo and into the bottom corner.

Croatia almost pulled one back immediately as the game started to echo the end-to-end nature of the two teams' thrilling last-16 clash at Euro 2020, won 5-3 by Spain after extra time.

Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon got down quickly to keep out Marcelo Brozovic's shot and Lovro Majer could only find the side-netting from the rebound.

Croatia continued to create chances, as Josko Gvardiol's cross-cum-shot narrowly avoided both Ante Budimir in the centre and the far post.

But full-back Carvajal, who scored the opening goal in Real Madrid's Champions League final triumph over Borussia Dortmund earlier this month, put the game to bed in first-half added time.

Yamal collected the ball after a corner was cleared and curled a delicious cross into the middle for Carvajal to stretch and stab home on the volley.

Croatia tried to press forward early in the second period but left spaces for Spain to exploit and Yamal was denied another record for youngest Euros scorer when Livakovic produced a fine save to turn away his low effort.

Marc Cucurella, a controversial selection by De la Fuente at left-back, made a goal-saving block to prevent Josip Stanisic giving Croatia hope.

Substitute Petkovic thought he had pulled one back late on when he tapped in after his penalty was saved by Simon.

But the goal was ruled out by VAR for encroachment by Ivan Perisic as Spain added a clean sheet to an almost perfect outing. (AFP)

Italy recover to beat Albania, Spain cruise