Italy are through to the play-offs for the finals of the UEFA European Under-21 Championships despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Belarus in Borisov.
The Azzurrini guaranteed themselves a top-two finish in Group 5 despite being without suspended captain Marco Donadel. They started brightly and took the lead after just eight minutes as Alessandro Rosina fed the ball through to Andrea Lazzari in a quick move on the break, and the latter struck a fierce shot right under the crossbar.
However, Belarus were back on level terms within three minutes as Artyom Kontsevoi connected with Yan Tigorev's cross to head the ball into the bottom left hand corner of the Italian net. The goal lifted the home side's spirits, and once play calmed down after a stormy start, they had the better of the chances with Kontsevoi, Pavel Plaskonny, Mikhail Afanasiev and Oleg Shkabara all going close.
Claudio Gentile's Italy rallied after the break and they produced two fine attacking moves within five minutes to remind their opponents of their class. After 54 minutes, Gianpaolo Pazzini raced through on goal only to be denied by a good save from Artur Lesko. The goalkeeper was on hand to deny the same player after a similar thrust upfield after 59 minutes.
As the clock ticked down, both sides nearly stole the points from free-kicks but Alberto Aquilani for Italy and Kontsevoi for Belarus both missed by mere centimetres. However, at the final whistle it was Italy who celebrated in earnest as they took a step closer to defending the U21 title they claimed in 2004.
"We had a few opportunities to score the second half and win the match, but I'm satisfied anyway even because the result was enough for us to qualify for the play-offs," said Gentile after the final whistle.
"I like this team because there is a huge margin of improvement compared to what we have done so far in this qualifying campaign," he added. "We were missing a few important players tonight but we played well anyway. I'm sure we can achieve very good results, especially when all the players in the squad are available."
Italy will now go into the play-offs for the final tournament which will be held over two legs on 12 and 16 November this year, with the final round being hosted by one of the eight play-off winners next May.