OSLO, Sept 10, (RTRS): Simone Zaza made the most of the suspended Mario Balotelli’s absence up front by scoring the opening goal to pave the way for Italy’s comfortable 2-0 win over Norway in a Euro 2016 Group H qualifier on Tuesday. The Sassuolo striker, surprisingly brought into the squad by new coach Antonio Conte, struck with a deflected shot after 16 minutes and also hit the crossbar and had an another effort cleared off the line before being substituted.
The 23-year-old Zaza repaid Conte’s faith immediately, winning a penalty on his debut in the 2-0 friendly victory over Netherlands in Bari on Thursday before scoring in Oslo. “He is a player of great desire and pride and he and the others have given a good example of that tonight,” Conte told a news conference. The Norwegians offered little resistance, enjoying plenty of possession in front of a sell-out crowd but failing to threaten Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.
Their best attacks came down Italy’s left flank as livewire Mats Moeller Daehli displayed his full bag of tricks and dribbles but the winger faded in the second half, as did the home team’s chances. Missing Balotelli and playmaker Andrea Pirlo, Conte’s first competitive game in charge saw him field a relatively young team that favoured industry over flair. With Mattia De Sciglio and Matteo Darmian playing wide in a five-man midfield, Italy began by probing the spaces behind Norway’s full backs.
Conte’s team defended from the front, with Zaza and Ciro Immobile energetically leading the chase to win the ball back when their side gave it away. The visitors took the lead fortuitously when Zaza’s effort took a deflection and wrong-footed keeper Orjan Nyland before bouncing into the net. Norway’s defence was too passive for the goal and should have shut down the Italy striker before he shot.
Captain Leonardo Bonucci again punished Norway in the 62nd minute, rising unmarked to power home a downward header from substitute Manuel Pasqual’s cross. Italy could have made it 3-0 in the 77th minute when Zaza went one-on-one with Nyland but his rising shot cannoned back off the crossbar and Alessandro Florenzi’s header from the rebound was palmed away by the keeper. Zaza had another one-on-one with Nyland a few minutes later. This time his delicate chip was cleared off the line and he was replaced by Mattia Destro soon after. Conte said his side played an “almost perfect game”, adding “it’s important to create that kind of team spirit, a team with a capital T”.
In Zagreb, goals by birthday boy Luka Modric and emerging 23-year-old striker Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia a 2-0 home win over 10-man Malta in a Euro 2016 Group H qualifier on Tuesday.
Playmaker Modric, who turned 29, broke the deadlock with a sizzling low shot in the 46th minute and second-half substitute Kramaric capped a fine individual performance with a late goal on his competitive debut.
Croatia’s 4-2-3-1 formation looked toothless in the opening half and they failed to create a single chance, even after Malta defender Steve Borg was sent off in the 31st minute for striking lone forward Mario Mandzukic off the ball. Coach Niko Kovac introduced robust striker Nikica Jelavic for central midfielder Mateo Kovacic at halftime to add bite up front and the substitution paid off immediately after the break.
Modric, making his 80th international appearance, took a half-cleared cross in his stride and unleashed a scorcher through a packed penalty area into the far corner of the net from 25 metres. Youthful midfielder Alen Halilovic, brought in along with Kramaric after Croatia’s group-stage exit in the 2014 World Cup, also went close as the home team upped the tempo.
The skilful Kramaric rattled the crossbar after showing nice footwork in the 70th minute before he sealed victory 11 minutes later with a calm finish after good work by Jelavic and Ivan Rakitic.
“I am overjoyed to have taken three points from this game after a poor first half,” Kovac told Croatian television. “The sending-off of Borg played into our hands and after moving up a gear in the second half with numerical advantage, we were able to break Malta down although they defended very well throughout the match.” “We have some young players who are talented but are yet to gel with the experienced players in this squad and that will take some time,” added Kovac.