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Italy open World Cup campaign with Northern Ireland win

Italy got their World Cup qualifying campaign off the mark on Thursday with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Northern Ireland in Group C.

Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile scored the crucial goals in the first half at the Stadio Ennio Tardini in Parma as the hosts extended their unbeaten run under coach Roberto Mancini to 23 games.

Mancini took over after the four-time World Cup winners failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, missing the finals for the first time in 60 years.

Since then Mancini has the best record of any Azzurri coach in the last 50 years with a run including 10 wins in their Euro 2020 qualifiers.

“The first half was excellent, we could have scored more goals,” said Mancini. 

“We’ll review the second because we could have done better. 

“It’s hard for everyone to pick up and play after five months. It was important to start well.”

Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci earned his 100th cap, playing in a four-man defence alongside veteran captain Giorgio Chiellini, Emerson and Alessandro Florenzi.

“The failure to qualify for the last World Cup is an open wound,” said Bonucci.

“We must take the rage, the hunger to conquer everything that Italy deserves from it.”

The home side dominated early with Immobile having a shot on goal after 12 minutes, the Lazio striker chesting down an Alessandro Florenzi cross and firing straight into the hands of visiting keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

But two minutes later Berardi made no mistake, collecting another Florenzi pass to score from a tight angle for his fourth goal in five internationals.

Emerson headed wide and Immobile threatened before finally netting on his third attempt six minutes before the break for his first Italy goal in nearly 18 months.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders I haven’t scored for a year and a half despite having chances,” said Immobile after his 11th goal for Italy and first since scoring a double against Armenia in November 2019.

“I was feeling frustrated and let it out after the goal went in.”

Ian Baraclough’s Northern Ireland are bidding to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

And the visitors attacked more in the second half with a poor Manuel Locatelli back pass after 56 minutes offering them a double chance.

Hull City’s Gavin Whyte latched onto the under-hit pass but Gianluigi Donnarumma blocked only for Michael Smith to get off a close-range shot which the AC Milan keeper again saved.

Shayne Lavery also tested Donnarumma with 20 minutes to go with the 22-year-old then getting down low to stop a volley from skipper Steven Davis.

The 36-year-old Rangers midfielder earned his 125th cap, equalling the British international record of ex-England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

“Any questions about Steven Davis have been put to bed,” said Baraclough. 

“Please stop trying to retire him. He didn’t look out of place today.”

However Baraclough lamented his side’s “passive” first half.

“Once we spoke about it the second half was totally different, we pressed, created chances and had more belief in ourselves.

“Maybe it’s a chance gone, we need to take that intensity from the second half into our next qualifying games.

“The players put in a great effort and created problems for Bonucci and Chiellini in the second half.”

Italy next play against Bulgaria in Sofia on Sunday.

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