New-look Italy are impressing with their offensive flair at the European Championship as they became the first team to reach the last 16 of the European Championship.
Midfielder Manuel Locatelli scored two goals in a game for the first time in his career in a 3-0 victory over Switzerland at the Stadio Olimpico that secured the Azzurri’s progress from the group stage with a game to spare.
It’s quite a turnaround for a team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Italy extended their unbeaten streak to 29 matches – one shy of their team record.
Wednesday evening win is their 10th clean sheets in a row in that run, scoring 30 times.
Locatelli’s first goal came after a textbook exchange with Sassuolo teammate Domenico Berardi midway through the first half.
His second came with a long, low shot shortly after the break that left Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer immobile.
Ciro Immobile added the third with a long-range effort in the 89th for his second goal of the tournament.
Giorgio Chiellini had a goal waved off by video review early in the match because of a handball. Then the Italy captain exited with an apparent left thigh injury.
Italy lead Group A with a six points after overwhelming Turkey 3-0 in their tournament opener with Wales second on four points after beating Turkey 2-0 in Baku in Wednesday’s earlier match.
Switzerland are one point and Turkey are yet to get off the mark.
Locatelli’s first goal was an offensive masterclass.
He started it off with a long pass from within Italy’s half to Berardi streaking down the right flank. Berardi then cut inside and crossed back to the onrushing Locatelli, who tapped in from close range.
And to think that Locatelli only gained his starting spot because of an injury to the more experienced Marco Verratti, who is expected back for the next game against Wales.
At age 23, Locatelli became the tournament’s youngest scorer so far.
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma preserved the shutout with a double save on Steven Zuber late in the second half.
In the group’s other game, captain Gareth Bale has set up both goals, making up for his missed penalty in Wales’ crucial 2-0 victory over Turkey at the European Championship.
Bale set up Aaron Ramsey and Connor Roberts to score in their Group A match at Baku’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday to take a big step towards qualifying for the knockout stages.
Ramsey failed to convert two chances early in the first half but scored just before halftime when he made a run through the middle to chest down Bale’s perfect ball over the defence and slip it past the goalkeeper.
Wales could have doubled the lead at the hour mark when Bale was tripped by Zeki Celik and awarded a penalty, but he skied his effort after a stuttering run up.
Wales scored right in injury time at the end of the match when a corner was played short and Roberts was on hand to divert a Bale pass past goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir to seal the victory.
“I’m delighted with the win. We fought hard, we worked our socks off like we always do,” Bale said after the game, adding that his contributions compensated for the penalty miss.
The surprise semi-finalists of Euro 2016 now have four points, after drawing with Switzerland in their opener. Their final game is against Italy next week. Turkey take on the Swiss.
Ramsey was twice picked out by Bale with superb defence-splitting passes but both times he failed to score, with Cakır denying him from a tight angle in the sixth minute and then thundering a shot over the bar in the 24th.
There was nothing lucky about the third time with Bale floating a superbly-timed cross in the 42nd minute for Ramsey who brought the ball down perfectly and slotted under Cakir.
With Turkish and Azeri Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev in the stands, Turkey upped the pace after the break.
Captain Burat Yilmaz, who had missed a good chance in the first half, should have scored 10 minutes after the restart when he was left completely unmarked in front of the Welsh goal but blazed a volley from three metres out well over the crossbar.
Wales found space to counter attack and Ramsey’s low shot was blocked before Bale was brought down just inside the box to earn a spot kick on the hour.
But the 31-year-old’s effort flew high and wide to keep the Turks in the game, who then forced a good save from keeper Danny Ward when he punched a Merih Demiral header wide in the 87th.
With the Turks having run out of steam in stoppage time, Bale cut inside to feed Roberts for their second goal.
“We’re in a fantastic position now. If you’d offered us 4 points at the start, we’d have bitten your hand off,” Bale said, paying tribute to Welsh fans who were heavily outnumbered by Turks in the stadium.
In the day’s opening fixture, Aleksei Miranchuk struck in first-half stoppage time as Russia gave lift-off to their European Championship challenge with a 1-0 win against Finland.
Atalanta forward Miranchuk’s decisive strike provided an absolutely key win for Russia on Wednesday following their opening 3-0 Group B defeat to Belgium.
Finland had upset Denmark 1-0 in their opening game, in a match overshadowed by Christian Eriksen’s collapse, but, although they improved in the second half against Russia, they failed to seriously trouble Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.
Russia will be relieved to be up and running – they also extended their unbeaten record against the Finns to 18 matches – but they were far from convincing in a game which was low on quality.
The home side were given an early let-off when Joel Pohjanpalo’s flying third-minute header was ruled out for offside by a marginal VAR decision.
Russia’s first chance came in the 10th minute, but after being picked out by Miranchuk’s pass inside the area, Magomed Ozdoev blazed over from 10 yards.
Finland were carved open again soon after when Artem Dzyuba’s low shot hit a post, although the flag had already gone up for another offside.
The Finns’ white wall was breached by the game’s first shot on target in the second minute of added time at the end of the first half.
Miranchuk played a one-two with skipper Dzyuba just inside the box and dinked a curling left-footed finish into goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky’s top right-hand corner.
Norwich striker Teemu Pukki was denied by Igor Diveev’s last-ditch tackle at the start of the second period as Finland tried to respond.
Pukki saw another effort comfortably saved and, as the second half unfolded, Russia were content to protect their lead and hit their opponents on the break.
But Finland lacked a cutting edge to cash in on their increased possession and Russia comfortably saw the game out.
Both sides can still progress to the round of 16. Russia will play Denmark in their final group game on Monday and Finland face Belgium.