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Relief as Immobile saves stuttering Italy

Reggio Emilia (Italy) (AFP) – The relief was palpable on Wednesday after Ciro Immobile kept Italy’s World Cup campaign on track despite an unconvincing 1-0 qualifying win by the four-time champions over Israel in Reggio Emilia.

A shell-shocked Azzurri needed to hit back hard after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Spain in Madrid on Saturday, which all but ended their hopes of automatic qualification to the tournament in Russia.

But Giampiero Ventura’s side were jeered off the pitch in northern Italy after a poor first half on Tuesday night before Lazio striker Immobile broke through eight minutes after the break to edge them closer to the play-offs.

The front pages of the daily newspapers echoed the sense of relief from “San Ciro” in Corriere dello Sport to “Italy slight recovery” in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The “apocalypse” scenario of Italy failing to qualify for the World Cup voiced by Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio had abated.

“Ciro Immobile saves Italy and mortgages the play-offs,” continued Corriere dello Sport.

La Gazzetta were scathing of the “slow and dull Azzurri” but took heart from the play-offs being a step away with one point needed from the last two qualifying games.

As Spain top Group G after routing Liechtenstein 8-0, Italy consolidated second place, six points clear of third-placed Albania, who were held 1-1 by Macedonia.

“It’s another small step forward,” said Ventura.

“We’re almost at the play-offs which is what everyone expected at the time of the draw. It’s not a surprise, it’s normal. With a good result in Spain we could have toppled the predictions.”

Italy, without the injured Giorgio Chiellini and suspended Leonardo Bonucci, were far from convincing after their demolition by Spain.

Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti was slated for another weak performance as he picked up a yellow card that rules him out against Macedonia in October.

Winger Antonio Candreva, who delivered the crucial cross for Immobile to head into goal, hailed the win as “an important achievement”.

“The KO of Madrid hurt and maybe there was a psychological block. But we reacted and remain a team who have done great things,” said Candreva.

Alongside Candreva and Immobile new Cheslea defender Davide Zappacosta received praise after being drafted in after the Santiago Bernabeu flop.

“The loss to Spain made us understand many things and we know we have to work as a team,” said Zappacosta. “The play-off goal is very close and we know we have to go to the World Cup. We are focused on this.”

Veteran captain Gianluigi Buffon defended Ventura’s much-criticised tactics.

“The boss has experience and must do what he believes, he feels he is following a certain kind of game and we must follow him with confidence,” added the 39-year-old ahead of qualifying games against Macedonia in Turin and Albania away in October.

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