ROME (AP) — Two years after failing to qualify for the World Cup, Italy’s turnaround could not be more emphatic.
The Azzurri overcame Greece’s defensive tactics for a 2-0 win Saturday and qualified for the 2020 European Championship with three matches to spare.
And qualification comes with quite a bonus: Italy is now assured of playing in the opening match of next year’s tournament at home in Rome in June.
“We haven’t really achieved anything yet but let’s enjoy this moment,” coach Roberto Mancini said. “We should be happy with the way the squad is playing. Italy still needs to work a lot to improve. But there’s not such a big gap from the big European squads.”
Brazilian-born midfielder Jorginho converted a penalty after the hour mark after a blatant handball by Andreas Bouchalakis. Then substitute Federico Bernardeschi scored from outside the area with a low, bouncing shot that was deflected.
Italy extended its perfect record in Group J to seven wins in seven matches. Add in a friendly victory over the United States last year and the Azzurri are in position to match the national team’s record of nine straight wins set under Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s by beating Liechtenstein on Tuesday.
“I appreciate the comparison but Pozzo is a legend because he won two World Cups, not for a run of nine straight wins,” Mancini said. “It was great to see the (Stadio) Olimpico full like this and we hope it will be even more magical next June.”
It was nearly two years ago that Italy lost a playoff to Sweden and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — leaving the four-time champion out of soccer’s biggest tournament for the first time in 54 years.
“The most important thing is that the fans have rediscovered their enthusiasm for the Azzurri,” Italian soccer federation president Gabriele Gravina said. “We’re definitely on the right track toward recovering what was lost in recent years.”
Italy has a full 21 points, nine more than second-place Finland. The top two teams of each group advance.
Greece, which has five points, had already lost hope of qualifying.
There were nearly 60,000 fans at the Stadio Olimpico in anticipation of the qualifying celebration but they were kept quiet for much of the night as Greece defended in large numbers.
The visitors produced the only shot on goal of the first half while Italy was temporarily playing with 10 men due to a knock to left back Danilo D’Ambrosio. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made a one-handed reflex save on a dangerous effort from Dimitris Limnios.
Things got worse for Italy when winger Federico Chiesa, perhaps the Azzurri’s best performer over the course of qualifying, limped off before the break with an apparent thigh issue. Chiesa was replaced by Bernardeschi.
“It’s always tough when squads pull everyone back to defend,” Mancini said. “We were too frenetic in the first half. We should have patiently moved the ball around to open up spaces. Instead, we attempted long balls and that’s no good. It was a much more relaxed second half. We kept focused and achieved our goal.”
Italy began to threaten more after the break and earned a penalty when Bouchalakis stuck out his arm to block a shot from Lorenzo Insigne that appeared on target.
Jorginho, who holds dual citizenship, sent goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis the wrong way after a nervous buildup to the spot kick as the referee took his time putting the players in order.
Fifteen minutes later, Bernardeschi took a pass from captain Leonardo Bonucci and scored his first Italy goal in more than a year.
Then it wasn’t long before the Stadio Olimpico was rocking to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” — the soundtrack to Italy’s last title at the 2006 World Cup.
By ANDREW DAMPF AP Sports Writer
Norway ends Spain’s perfect record; Italy at Euro 2020
Sergio Ramos was seconds away from celebrating his record for most appearances for Spain with a victory that would have ensured his country a spot at next year’s European Championship.
But Norway’s last-gasp push for an equalizer paid off in their evenly fought qualifier on Saturday which finished 1-1.
That ended Spain’s perfect run of six wins in six matches. Italy did stay perfect by overcoming Greece’s defensive tactics in a 2-0 victory and qualified for next year’s continent-wide tournament.
Spain slipped up after goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga gave away a penalty by fouling Omar Elabdellaoui in stoppage time, allowing Joshua King to step up and equalize from the spot just before the final whistle in Oslo.
Spain will have another chance to advance on Tuesday at Sweden, but it will do so without Ramos, who will be suspended for an accumulation of yellow cards.
Saúl Ñíguez had put Spain ahead with a long-range goal only two minutes after halftime, and Fabián Ruíz went close to sealing the win when he hit the post on two occasions.
The 33-year-old Ramos surpassed Casillas’ mark by making his 168th appearance for “La Roja.”
“I would trade (the record) for a win,” Ramos said. “But it is a reward for all these years of sacrifice. It is an honor. Every time I put on this shirt I am moved with emotion.”
Ramos and Sergio Busquets are the last remaining members of the great Spain teams that won the 2010 World Cup and European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
Spain leads Group F with 19 points. Sweden has 14 points after beating Malta 4-0 with Sebastian Larsson scoring twice from the penalty spot in the second half.
Romania beat the Faroe Islands 3-0 and has 13 points, three more than Norway.
SWISS AT RISK
Denmark beat Switzerland 1-0 to take the joint lead of Group D with Ireland.
The Irish were held to a 0-0 draw at Georgia.
Denmark and Ireland have 12 points. Switzerland, which has eight points and a game in hand, hosts Ireland on Tuesday.
The top two teams of each group advance. The other four qualifiers will come through four tiers of playoffs in March.
By JOSEPH WILSON Associated Press