2018 Fifa World Cup European qualifying

Flares halt Albania-Italy World Cup qualifier as Gianluigi Buffon celebrates his 1000th game

Ciro Immobile heads superb winner to set up showdown with Spain

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 10:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 10:31pm

Albania coach Gianni Biasi apologised for his team’s flare-throwing fans after a 2-0 defeat to Italy that maintained a rejuvenated Azzurri’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

De Biasi had warned the Renato Barbera stadium in Palermo would be heavily attended by fans keen to follow his side following their historic, major finals appearance at Euro 2016 last summer.

But Albania’s feisty supporters left a decidedly negative impression in a match decided either side of a seven-minute interruption in the 57th minute, by goals from Daniele De Rossi, from the spot, and Ciro Immobile, in the 71st minute.

Referee Slavko Vincic suspended the match in the second half due to the persistent throwing of flares and smoke bombs by Albania supporters.

Biasi, a native Italian who sang both national anthems before kick-off, said: “I’m very sorry about [fans throwing] the smoke flares.

“I saw something tonight I hadn’t seen in five years. I’m really sorry and disappointed.”

He added: “We were still in the game until the second goal, that’s the most positive thing for us.

“But Italy are a quality side, in great condition, and some of our players are not even playing in their clubs, so our performance was more than acceptable.”

When Roma captain De Rossi stepped up to beat Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha on 12 minutes, two rocket flares that had been thrown onto the pitch were still burning brightly on the left side of the area.

Italy resumed in positive fashion when play resumed after a roughly seven-minute interruption which began in the 57th minute, Immobile beat club-mate Strakosha with a fine header from Davide Zappacosta’s delivery in the 71st minute.

A fourth win from five games leaves Italy second in Group G, on the same points (13) as Spain, who boast a superior goals difference.

With only group winners automatically qualifying, the importance of Italy’s visit to Spain on September 2 cannot be underestimated, especially after Spain held Italy to a 1-1 draw in Turin last year.

Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura lamented the lack of “fluidity” from his side in a match of few thrills, but he was quick to lay out his future vision for what is shaping up, on paper, to be an intriguing side featuring a mix of youth and experience.

“Certainly, tonight we didn’t see an extraordinarily exhilarating game,” Ventura told Rai.

“But I can tell, despite the fact we have a lot of fresh, young talent, a real team is in the process of being born.

“I don’t see why we don’t have all the ingredients of a great Italy side for the future.”

Torino striker Andrea Belotti, 23, on a league-leading 22 goals in Serie A, led Italy’s attack with Immobile while veteran ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon made his 168th appearance in what was his 1,000th professional game.

“With the likes of Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and myself we have the experienced backbone of the team, but there is lots of fresh young talent here,” said De Rossi.