Italy revived their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying hopes with a 2-0 win against Finland in the Renzo Barbera stadium in Palermo to ease the pressure on coach Giovanni Trapattoni.
Christian Vieri scored twice in the first half against a subdued visiting side, who were without injured captain Jari Litmanen, to move ahead of Serbia and Montenegro and into second place in Group 9 - five points behind Wales who still have to travel to Italy in September.
With Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi both injured, Vieri was Italy's spearhead, with Marco Delvecchio, Francesco Totti and Mauro Camoranesi forming an attacking trio behind him. The formation foxed the Finnish defence who found themselves vulnerable to pace out wide and long balls through the middle.
After four minutes Finland's Teemu Tainio tried his luck from distance only to screw his shot wide. Little did Gianluigi Buffon know that his goal would be barely be threatened again for the rest of the match. Just one minute later Italy took the lead after AS Roma duo Totti and Delvecchio sliced an exchange of passes through the Finnish defence. Totti then played the ball square to Vieri who could not miss from such close range.
The goal was the signal for blue shirts to pour forward in increasing numbers. Totti blasted a free-kick over the crossbar, Delvecchio had a shot blocked and Vieri forced a magnificent one-handed save out of goalkeeper Antti Niemi.
On 22 minutes Italy went further ahead thanks to a swift counterattack. Excellent perseverance from Janne Saarinen down the left won a corner for Finland, but the Italians cleared quickly into the path of Totti whose wonderful pass released Vieri who was waiting, onside, by the halfway line. The Internazionale FC forward had a metre or so start on the Finnish defenders and raced all the way into the penalty area before lifting the ball over the advancing Niemi to double his side's lead and register his 17th goal for his country.
After such a scintillating opening the rest of the game was somewhat anti-climactic with the main interest surrounding whether Vieri would complete his hat-trick. He certainly had the chances to, but he dragged a shot wide on 29 minutes after a smart Mauro Camoranesi pass and stumbled three minutes after that when Totti unselfishly played the ball back to him in the box.
The second half began with a minor Finnish rally that saw Sami Hyypiä head wide. However, Italy remained the more dangerous of the two sides, particularly when Delvecchio and Totti were on the ball. On 55 minutes Delvecchio's smart pass allowed Vieri to bear down on goal yet again, but he took the ball too wide and his scuffed shot deflected via Hannu Tihinen into the arms of Niemi. Three minutes later another swift counterattack ended with Delvecchio crossing the ball to Totti whose sweeping shot rebounded off the post.
On 67 minutes yet another Delvecchio long pass released Totti who cut inside one defender and then, as he shaped to shoot, fell over the trailing leg of Janne Saarinen. The referee waved away penalty appeals and thereafter Italy seemed to resign themselves to a two-goal victory. Yet greater challenges lie ahead as they look to reel in runaway group leaders Wales.
Trapattoni is certainly confident that his side can do this. "I'm sure that when we play with our full squad we can win matches and qualify from this group," he said after the game. "In my tenure as coach I don't think we have ever played as brilliantly as [in the first half] tonight."
Meanwhile, Finland coach Antti Muurinen admitted that his side's hopes of playing in Portugal at EURO 2004™ are receding fast. "Italy were better than us today," he said. "We have a poor chance of qualifying now. We have to win every match."