Afternoon all! Sports Mole
's live Euro 2016
qualifying coverage continues from Baku as Azerbaijan welcome Italy in Group H. The home team can no longer make it to the tournament in France next summer, but victory for Italy here would strengthen their grip on first position. Indeed, the Italians can also qualify this evening if other results in the group go their way. Let's hope for a good match!
First and foremost, let me bring you up-to-speed with the all-important team news...
AZERBAIJAN: Agayev; Dashdemirov, Sadygov, Huseynov, Medvedev; Nazarov, Amirguliyev, Eddy, Garayev, Ismayilov; Gurbanov
ITALY: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, De Sciglio; Candreva, Verratti, Parolo, El Shaarawy; Pelle, Eder
So there we have it. It appears that the home side will line-up in a 4-5-1 formation here, with Ruslan Gurbanov leading the attack. It will be a special game for defender Rashad Sadygov, meanwhile, as he prepares to win his 100th cap for his country. Eddy Israfilov, who represents Eibar in Spain, is also included in the XI alongside Gara Garayev. Elvin Mammadov, however, is among the substitutes.
As for Italy, head coach Antonio Conte
has selected Sampdoria's Eder to start alongside in-form Graziano Pelle in attack. Stephan El Shaarawy
and Antonio Candreva are also given roles in the team, while Gianluigi Buffon will win his 151st cap for the former world champions in Baku. The surprise inclusion in the XI is Lazio's Marco Parolo, who starts in midfield alongside Marco Verratti.
This will be the fourth time that these two teams have met in a competitive match. The first two meetings occurred during qualification for Euro 2004 and Italy were victorious in both games without conceding, including a 2-0 success in Baku. Italy also beat Azerbaijan 2-1 in Palermo when the two teams clashed in the reverse match in this particular group. All three goals were scored by Giorgio Chiellini on what was a very eventful night for the Juventus central defender...
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Azerbaijan lost each of their first four Group H games, but are unbeaten in their last four since the appointment of Robert Prosinecki as head coach. They have only won one of those games – against Malta – but have recorded impressive draws away to Norway and at home to Croatia, results that helped Italy keep first position in the group. Tonight, they could help Italy qualify if they lose the match.
Azerbaijan have taken part in every qualification process for a major international tournament since Euro 1996, but have never made it to the finals. That wait till go on until at least the 2018 World Cup, but they will be keen to finish above Bulgaria in this particular group. As it stands, they sit fifth in the section, four points clear of Malta, who are bottom, and just two off fourth-place Bulgaria.
As for Italy, their spot at Euro 2016 is not quite secure despite sitting top of the section on 18 points, two clear of second-place Norway and three clear of third-place Croatia. Indeed, defeat this evening would place Antonio Conte's team in a very precarious position. Incredibly though, Italy are unbeaten in their last 48 qualifying matches since a 3-1 defeat to France in September 2006.
Conte's side opened their Group H campaign with three straight wins over Norway, Azerbaijan (H) and Malta, but then drew their next three against Croatia (H), Bulgaria and Croatia (A). The former world champions have won their last two, both 1-0, against Malta and Bulgaria, however, to top the section.
Italy will also be in action on Tuesday at home to Norway in a game that could well decide who tops this group, or indeed who qualifies if Croatia manage to sneak into the top two. Italy have reached the final in two of the last four European Championships and also made the quarter-finals in 2008, but have, somewhat surprisingly, not won the competition since 1968. Right, time for my pre-match prediction!
PREDICTION! I can see this being a tricky game for the Italians, but I think that Conte's side have enough about them to claim all three points. Azerbaijan have speed and energy in the final third and I can see them scoring, but I shall back Italy to secure the points with a narrow 2-1 success in Baku.
KICKOFF! Here we go then - both national anthems have been completed and both sets of players are ready for kickoff in Baku. Can Italy triumph? We shall see! The visitors get us underway here...
... as expected, Italy have taken control of the possession in the opening couple of minutes, with Darmian already having the chance to break down the right. Italy force a free kick just outside the box as Eder is brought to the ground by Dashdemirov. Almost a very early penalty here...
... Candreva delivers, but the home side manage to survive as Agayev restarts with a goal kick.
I have been inside this stadium and I must say that it is a wonderful venue in Baku. Italy are enjoying the early moments here as Darmian again breaks down the right, but his cross is cleared for a corner. Not much of a surprise that it is the visitors making most of the early progress here.
Eder manages to get a shot away inside the Azerbaijan box, but there are two red shirts in the way and eventually the hosts have another goal kick. Decent atmosphere inside the stadium tonight.
Half-chance for the home side this time as Amirguilyev finds space outside the Italian box, but his effort was always straight into the arms of Buffon. Better from Azerbaijan in the last couple here.
Not too much to report in terms of clear chances for either team in the opening nine minutes, but both are committing plenty of bodies forward when they get the opportunity to break. Eddy has shown some nice touches for Azerbaijan thus far, with the number eight making his presence known.
GOAL! Azerbaijan 0-1 Italy (Eder)
Italy take the lead in the 11th minute as Eder collects a super Verratti pass before tucking his effort under the onrushing goalkeeper. It was an excellent run and finish from the Sampdoria forward.
Azerbaijan had just started to make their mark in the contest, but Italy's threat in the final third has seen them open the scoring. As it stands, they are indeed heading for Euro 2016. However, the hosts have shown that they have the ability to worry Chiellini & Co. Entertaining opening to this game!
It has been a decent response from Azerbaijan since that Eder goal went in, with Gurbanov enjoying touches of the ball in the final third. Good work from Nazarov also breaches Italy's defence, but his final cross is straight out for a goal kick. Italy have been fairly comfortable thus far this evening.
CHANCE! Eder comes close to making it 2-0 Italy after controlling inside the box before hammering his effort towards goal, but it is a very smart save from Agayev, who pushed behind for a corner.
Darmian had a difficult game for Manchester United at Arsenal last weekend, but the right-back does not look short of confidence here as he continues to break into a wide area. Azerbaijan are moving the ball pretty well, however, and will be confident of creating chances as the game develops.
Not too much to report in terms of chances in the last couple of minutes, but it has been a good spell of possession for the home side and Gurbanov has proved a live-wire in the final third.
Garayev delivers a super cross into the Italy box, which threatens to cause Darmian problems, but there are no takers inside the box and Italy survive. It is a good spell for Azerbaijan at the minute.
It might just be me, but Italy are making this pitch very big, which is causing Azerbaijan problems. We have not seen too much from El Shaarawy in the opening 26 minutes, but Eder's movement is causing problems. Italy threaten from another corner, but Medvedev is on hand to clear the danger.
Really good spell for Azerbaijan at the moment as they continue to move the ball quickly...
... GOAL! Azerbaijan 1-1 Italy (Nazarov)
The home side level the scores in the 31st minute as Gurbanov slides a super pass into Nazarov, who left Buffon rooted to the spot as he found the bottom corner. What a finish there!
It is difficult to say that the home side do not deserve to be level after their strong response to falling behind. This is a test for Italy and they have another shooting chance when El Shaarawy finds space outside the box, but his effort was always rising over the crossbar. Really good game here!
CHANCE! Azerbaijan are all over the place at the back as Darmian swings a dangerous cross into the box, but El Shaarawy can only hook over the crossbar from close range. Should have been 2-1 there.
Little over five minutes of the first period remaining and as it stands, Italy will not book their spot at the European Championships this evening. This was always going to be a tricky game for Conte's side and that has been the case in the first period. We are all square in the 39th minute in Baku.
Azerbaijan again threaten as Garayev delivers a super ball towards Gurbanov, who has been a willing runner this evening, but Bonucci just manages to clear behind for a home corner.
GOAL! Azerbaijan 1-2 Italy (El Shaarawy)
Italy regain the lead in the 43rd minute as a quick breakaway leads to Candreva squaring for El Shaarawy, who simply cannot miss as he taps home from close range. The stadium is stunned!
Azerbaijan have played well for long stages of this first period, but have been guilty of switching off and it has cost them on two occasions. Italy will seemingly take a lead into the interval here.
HALF-TIME: Azerbaijan 1-2 Italy
So there we have it. The referee brings the first period to a close with Italy leading 2-1 in Baku courtesy of goals from Eder and El Shaarawy. Nazarov levelled the scores for the hosts following the opener from Eder, but El Shaarawy struck in the 43rd minute to hand the visitors a half-time advantage.
STATISTICS! Azerbaijan have just about shaded the possession with 53%, while they have had three attempts, all of which were on target. As for Italy, they registered three attempts on target from six shots. Somewhat surprisingly, there has not been a single yellow card thus far tonight.
BENCH WATCH! Azerbaijan have a number of attacking options on their bench this evening, with the likes of Erat, Mammadov and Abishov all capable of making a difference. As for Italy, they have options in the shape of Florenzi, Giovinco, Soriano and Zaza. Will we see any changes at the break?
RESTART! Here we go then - both sets of players join us on the pitch for the second period. As it stands, Italy are heading for Euro 2016, but we are not finished. Azerbaijan restart the action...
... no changes from either side at the break, which is not too much of a surprise. However, I suspect that both managers will have alterations in mind as the action proceeds in this Group H clash.
It has been a fairly quiet start to the second period in Baku, with neither team committing too many players forward at this stage. You sense that Azerbaijan need to score the next goal if they are to stand a chance of securing a positive result. Eder remains a real live-wire in Italy's attack here.
Half-chance for Italy as De Sciglio finds space outside the box, but his low strike was always straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. Both teams are just feeling each other out in the early moments.
It is good work from Candreva as the Italian finds space in a wide area before delivering towards Pelle, but Eddy is on hand to clear the danger. Eventually Pelle has the chance to release a strike, but his effort was always moving over the crossbar. It remains 2-1 to the visitors in Baku tonight.
As it stands, Italy would indeed qualify for Euro 2016 tonight, but first position in the group would not be secure as Norway sit just two points behind. Croatia need a favour from Azerbaijan here.
Again it is Eder who breaks forward for Italy before attempting to feed Pelle, but two red shirts are quickly on the scene and the danger is cleared. There have not been too many clear opportunities in this second period, but with 30 minutes remaining, this fixture is still very much wide open.
Medvedev seems to have a problem for the hosts here as he goes down holding his knee...
... the defender is back on his feet following a coming-together with El Shaarawy.
Norway are currently 2-0 ahead at home to Malta and in truth, it would be a major surprise if they did not win from that position. As a result, they would remain two points behind Italy with the scores as they stand. Azerbaijan are not really threatening to equalise at the moment here.
OFF-THE-LINE! Incredible defending from Sadygov as the Azerbaijan captain somehow clears an Eder effort, which looked destined for the back of the net. Sensational defending from the skipper!
Neither manager has made a change at this stage of the contest, but we are entering the period of the match where both will be considering alterations. It is so delicately poised, but a third for Italy would surely secure all the points. Still more than 25 minutes of this Group H contest remaining.
It is smart work from El Shaarawy as the Italian winger drops his shoulder before cutting inside his full-back, but his effort is blocked as the home side's defence stands strong once again.
GOAL! Azerbaijan 1-3 Italy (Darmian)
Italy have their third goal as Darmian advances onto a loose ball outside the box before hammering one into the bottom corner. The defender completely wrong-footed Agayev there! Excellent effort!
That is a big goal at this stage of the contest. Little over 20 minutes remaining and the home side need to score twice in order to stop Italy from qualifying for the European Championships tonight.
It has been a decent response from the home side, who have a half-chance when Nazarov breaks into the final third, but his effort was always straight into the arms of the waiting Buffon.
Another half-chance for Italy as Eder finds space just outside the box, but his low effort was comfortable for Agayev, who has had some difficult moments in this game. Still 3-1 to the visitors.
ITALY SUB! Florenzi replaces El Shaarawy for the visitors.
AZERBAIJAN SUB! Erat replaces Gurbanov for the hosts.
There has still not been a single yellow card in this game, but Verratti is lucky to escape following a late challenge on Garayev. Little over 10 minutes of football remaining and the hosts have a corner.
ITALY SUB! Giovinco replaces Eder in Italy's second change.
Not an awful lot to report in terms of chances in the last five minutes or so as Italy keep possession in the final third of the field. As it stands, Conte's side are qualifying for Euro 2016 in France.
Azerbaijan are on the front foot at the moment, with Erat and Eddy combining in the final third, but Italy shuffle across to close the space and survive without any real threat on Buffon's goal.
Almost a clear chance for Pelle to add a fourth for Italy after a super pass from Parolo, but it is just too long for the Southampton striker and Agayev restarts the play with a goal kick.
There has still not been a single yellow card in this match, which is a surprise! That said, it has flowed from end-to-end without any real major incidents. Azerbaijan continue to break forward, but they are finding it very difficult to penetrate the centre of the Italian penalty box.
RED CARD! Huseynov (AZE) is sent off for the home team after pulling Giovinco to the ground when the Italian was through on goal. It is only a free kick, but Azerbaijan are now one man down here.
ITALY SUB! Montolivo is back for Italy and replaces Candreva.
Giovinco will take the resulting free kick...
... CROSSBAR! Giovinco smashes the crossbar with a beautiful curling effort!
AZERBAIJAN SUB! Mirzabekov replaces Ismayilov for the hosts.
We are into the second of three additional minutes here.
Possession football from the away side as they close out the final seconds this evening.
BOOKING! Medvedev (AZE) is booked for a late challenge on Giovinco.
FULL-TIME: Azerbaijan 1-3 Italy
ITALY QUALIFY FOR EURO 2016!
So there we have it. Italy indeed book their spot at Euro 2016 with an impressive 3-1 win in Azerbaijan. The hosts had their moments during an entertaining affair, but there is little doubt that the visitors deserved to claim all three points. First spot in Group H is not yet secure, however, after Norway's home win over Malta. Thanks for joining Sports Mole for the action once again. Good evening!