Two goals from Robert Acquafresca secured Italy's place in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship semi-finals against Germany, but despite dominating possession they were made to wait before seeing off a dogged Belarus 2-1 in Helsingborg.
Belarus had stunned the five-time champions by taking the lead through Sergei Kislyak in the 45th minute only for the Azzurrini to hit back immediately through Acquafresca's penalty with the final kick of the first half. With the score at 1-1 and Sweden beating Serbia in the night's other match, Belarus could still have advanced with victory and it was not until the 75th minute that Acquafresca finally settled Azzurrini nerves with his second of the game to ensure they finished top of Group A. Things did not all go Italy's way, though. Claudio Marchisio was booked and will miss Friday's semi-final here through suspension while Paolo de Ceglie is a doubt after being taken off in the first half with an ankle injury.
Italy made one change from the side that had beaten Sweden, with Ignazio Abate replacing the suspended Mario Balotelli in attack. The Torino FC player was quickly into the action, crossing in the second minute to Acquafresca who fired into the side-netting. Five minutes later Abate's shot skimmed wide as Italy enjoyed the early running. Belarus threatened in the 12th minute when Leonid Kovel broke into the area, but Marco Motta clipped the ball off his toes as he ran on goal. Belarus were beginning to get a foothold and the momentum shifted against Italy on 14 minutes when De Ceglie was replaced by Daniele Dessena after injuring his left knee. Sergei Krivets then shot over before Salvatore Bocchetti had to be alert to clear from the midfielder after Dmitri Komarovski's curling pass had picked him out in the area.
Belarus, though, were fortunate not to fall behind on 29 minutes in a breathless flurry of chances at the other end. First Mikhail Afanasiev cleared off the line from Domenico Criscito then, after Pavel Chesnovski had tipped over Abate's shot, Afansiev hacked Bocchetti's goalbound header off the line from the resulting corner. Belarus were living dangerously and Criscito should have directed a free header on goal four minutes before the break. Still wondering how they had failed to score, Italy fell behind on 45 minutes when Kislyak swept in Igor Shitov's cross. Belarus players ran to the bench to celebrate but their joy was short-lived. With the added time almost up, Afanasiev handled Abate's cross in the box and Acquafresca fired in from the spot.
Acquafresca could have put Italy ahead three minutes after the interval only to slice his shot wide when through on goal and they came close once more on 55 minutes when Bocchetti's header thudded back off the bar. Another Italy chance went begging on 64 minutes when Sebastian Giovinco's low shot was blocked by Chesnovski and with every opportunity that went to waste, Belarus's hopes increased at the same rate as nerves on the Italy bench. With Sweden leading in the section's other match, an unanswered goal now would have taken Belarus through at Italy's expense and twice they went close on 73 minutes, first Andrea Consigli punching over Kovel's powerful free-kick then Maksim Bordachov heading just over. Not until the 75th minute could Italy finally begin to breathe easily. Giovinco played in Antonio Candreva who squared the ball for Acquafresca to tap in unmarked. Giovinco then hit the bar three minutes later, but Italy had already done enough.