Italy are through to the UEFA EURO 2004™ finals after a composed performance saw them beat Azerbaijan 4-0 at the Oreste Granillo in Reggio Calabria on Saturday night.
The result was never in any danger once Christian Vieri had put the home side ahead after 15 minutes and further strikes from Filippo Inzaghi (2) and Marco Di Vaio completed the rout.
It is a remarkable achievement by Italy who looked doomed in October last year after only picking up one point from the Group 9 games against Serbia and Montenegro at home and Wales away. However, they have since beaten all their group opponents at least once and seized control of the group with a 4-0 defeat of Wales last month.
Against Azerbaijan, coach Giovanni Trapattoni was without Alessandro Del Piero but, as against Wales, he started with three forwards with Francesco Totti coming in for Del Piero. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, were without suspended pair Tarlan Akhmedov and Ruslan Musayev as well as injured strikers Farrukh Ismaylov and Gurban Gurbanov.
Slick Italian move
Italy immediately seized the initiative and put the visitors under pressure. Vieri had a goal ruled out for offside in the fifth minute before giving Italy the lead ten minutes later. Mauro Camoranesi instigated the move and found Cristiano Zanetti outside the area. The Internazionale FC midfield player flicked the ball into Vieri's path and the forward made no mistake when one-on-one with Dmitriy Kramarenko.
The goal did not stop the home side from pouring forward. The Azeris defended bravely but were unable to stop the impressive home side with full-backs Massimo Oddo, a late replacement for the injured Christian Panucci, and Gianluca Zambrotta creating havoc in the Azerbaijan defence.
And it was from one of those attacks that Italy made it 2-0. Oddo raced down the right and floated in a cross, which evaded the whole Azeri backline and dropped perfectly for Inzaghi to head home from his position at the far post, giving Dmitriy Kramarenko in the Azerbaijan goal no chance.
Di Vaio impact
The Italian onslaught continued in the second half although the visitors saw slightly more of the ball. An unimpressed Vieri was replaced by Marco Di Vaio in the 54th minute and the Juventus FC forward needed only ten minutes to make it 3-0, collecting a Totti pass in the area and firing past substitute goalkeeper Jahangir Hasanzade.
There was also time for another goal from Inzaghi, a fierce effort from another perfectly weighted Totti though-ball, to make it five goals in two games for the AC Milan forward following his hat-trick against Wales. In the end, the 4-0 win was more than enough to seal top spot in Group 9 on 17 points, four points ahead of second-placed Wales.
After the game Vieri, who had earlier appeared to ignore the congratulations of his coach when he was substituted, moved to defuse any controversy. "My reaction was normal," he said. "I am someone with a desire to play and to win, and score goals.
There is no problem with the coach - we spoke about it after the match."