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Alex Morgan scored deep in added time to give two-time FIFA Women's World Cup winners the United States victory against Italy in the first leg of the UEFA-CONCACAF play-off in Padova.
Italy topped their qualifying group, lost a play-off to France then overcame Ukraine and Switzerland to earn this last chance for a finals ticket against the third-placed CONCACAF nation. And a fine defensive performance seemed set to keep them level before 86th-minute substitute Morgan gave the US an edge for next Saturday's second leg in Bridgeview, near Chicago.
Coached by former Sweden player Pia Sundhage, the US forced Californian-born Azzurre goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli into an early save through Christie Rampone while at the other end Patrizia Panico came close. Picarelli also denied Abby Wambach and Heather O'Reilly before another stop from Rampone for the US, who have never missed out on the World Cup and were only in this play-off after a surprise CONCACAF semi-final loss to Mexico.
The home side, missing Melania Gabbiadini and Sara Gama due to injury, were still very much in the game and just past the hour Panico forced a tremendous save from Nicole Barnhart, in the US goal due to Hope Solo's long-term absence with a shoulder problem. With ten minutes left Amy Rodriguez's shot beat Picarelli but Carolina Pini headed the ball off the line. However, a desperate late US push bore fruit when, near the end of five added minutes, Carli Lloyd's long ball found Morgan to slip the ball past Picarelli.
Azzurre coach Pietro Ghedin said: "Even before they scored, we could have very well allowed a goal in the previous five minutes. We didn't have any strength left, and fatigue led to that goal."
Hosts and holders Germany, UEFA play-off winners England, France, Norway and Sweden plus Australia, Korea DPR, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Nigeria, debutants Equatorial Guinea, New Zealand, Brazil and one other South American team will also be in next summer's finals. The draw will be made in Frankfurt on 29 November.
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