Italy beats Norway 2-0 in Euro 2016 qualifier
OSLO - Italy beat Norway 2-0 in its opening European Championship qualifier on Tuesday as Antonio Conte extended his winning start as coach.
Simone Zaza scored his first international goal in the 16th minute as Italy showed little sign of missing suspended striker Mario Balotelli. Strike partner Ciro Immobile was offside and in the goalkeeper’s line of vision, but the referee waved away Norway’s protests.
Leonardo Bonucci doubled Italy’s lead shortly after the hour mark.
Zaza also hit the crossbar late on and had an effort cleared off the line.
“I’ve had a dream week,’’ Zaza said. “Now my aim is to remain in this squad and continue doing well.’’
In the other matches in Group H, Bulgaria won 2-1 in Azerbaijan, while Croatia beat 10-man Malta 2-0.
It was Conte’s first competitive match in charge after steering Italy to a 2-0 friendly win over the Netherlands on his debut last week.
“It was an important match,’’ Conte said. “It wasn’t easy, it’s been a very long time since we won in Norway. These are three important points. In nine days we have managed to do important things with the lads, now we have to continue, get to know each other better to improve.
“But I don’t remember [Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi] Buffon getting his gloves dirty, while I remember several good chances for us to round out the scoreline. It’s never easy to come here so I’m happy. Obviously we need to improve but I’m happy with the lads’ attitude.’’
Conte replaced Cesare Prandelli, who resigned immediately after Italy’s first-round elimination from the World Cup.
The former Juventus manager caused a stir when he left out Balotelli from his first squad - although the new Liverpool striker was suspended for the qualifier.
With Giuseppe Rossi out with knee problems, Conte started again with Immobile - last year’s top scorer in Serie A - and Zaza.
Zaza, who was the first Sassuolo player to win an Italy cap, looked dangerous early on and he broke the deadlock following a mazy run with a shot from a tight angle, which took a slight deflection to wrongfoot Norway goalkeeper Orjan Nyland.
Norway almost leveled immediately but Joshua King fired over the bar under pressure from Andrea Ranocchia.
Italy went close to doubling its lead when a fierce effort by Emanuele Giaccherini stung Nyland’s gloves and Immobile couldn’t fire home the rebound.
The Azzuri did score a second when Bonucci was left unmarked at the far post and headed in a cross from substitute Manuel Pasqual, who had just come off the bench.
Zaza almost doubled his tally but saw his fierce effort crash off the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area. The 23-year-old was injured in the move and limped off.
However, he was able to come back on after treatment on the sideline and moments later saw an effort cleared off the line by Vegard Forren.
Immobile was stretchered off in stoppage time, but team doctor Enrico Castellacci later said it was “nothing to be concerned about.’’
Elsewhere, second-half goals from Luka Modric and Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia victory. Malta defender Steve Borg was sent off shortly after the half-hour mark for hitting out at Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic.
Substitute Ventsislav Hristov’s late header saw Bulgaria snatch a 2-1 win in Azerbaijan.
Ilian Micanski had scored the opener for Bulgaria before Dimitrij Nazarov’s leveler.
The top two teams from the nine groups qualify automatically, as does the best third-placed nation. The other eight third-placed teams can qualify through a playoff. AP
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