Israel held Italy to a goalless draw in Ancona in the first leg of their UEFA European Under-21 Championship play-off to leave the tie wide open when the sides meet again in Tel-Aviv on Wednesday.
Italy dominated much of the match but were unable to turn possession into meaningful chances. Their best opportunity fell to Marco Motta who headed over on 17 minutes, giving Israel, who knocked out France at this stage of qualifying for the 2007 tournament, real cause for optimism as they bid to reach the finals for the second time.
The hosts got off to a fine start and Israel goalkeeper Ohad Levita was called into action after two minutes to beat away Luca Cigarini's free-kick. Sebastian Giovinco then fired wide from the edge of the area, before Motta sent his close-range header over the bar with less than 20 minutes played. Italy saw most of the ball for the remainder of the half, but it was Israel who came closer to breaking the deadlock when Bebars Natcho's 40th-minute free-kick went narrowly wide.
Giovinco and his Juventus team-mate Claudio Marchisio were Italy's danger men during the second period, yet both were let down by poor finishing. At the other end, Israel continued to menace from free-kicks and, on 64 minutes, home goalkeeper Andrea Consigli did well to keep out Lior Rafaelov's attempt. Italy controlled proceedings for the final 20 minutes without – a chance for Pablo Osvaldo excepted – really threatening the Israel goal as Motti Iwanir's side hung on for a creditable draw.
Italy coach Pierluigi Casiraghi said: "We played well, not brilliantly. We created a number of chances but didn't score. I think we did what we had to. We dominated the game except for the second part of the first half. Unfortunately a lot of players will be missing [Giovinco, Marchisio and Daniele Dessena through suspension] for the return leg, but we hope to have Mario Balotelli [absent here because of flu] back."
Israel coach Iwanir warned there was plenty of hard work ahead as he took pride in the performance. "We are satisfied by the result, but it's far from over," he said. "We showed the Italians we are not afraid of them or anyone. Tiny Israel came to Italy and played one of the giants of European and world football – and are walking away with our heads high."