Italy beats Azerbaijan to qualify for Euro 2016

Our soccer panel discusses Wales and Italy qualifying to the Euro 2016 and what to expect going forward from Turkey and the Dutch national team.

Stephan El Shaarawy ended a three-year drought by scoring the winning goal as Italy beat Azerbaijan 3-1 Saturday to qualify for next year’s European Championship.

After Eder’s opener and an equalizer from Dmitri Nazarov, El Shaarawy finished off a counterattack in the 43rd for his first national team goal since November 2012.

Manchester United’s Matteo Darmian added another for Italy in the second half in Baku.

Watch match highlights: Azerbaijan 1, Italy 3 ||

“Now that we’ve qualified it might have seemed easy but there’s nothing easy,” said Italy coach Antonio Conte, who took over when Cesare Prandelli resigned after the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from last year’s World Cup.

“We’re improving,” Conte added. “Now we’ve got to continue like this, recuperate and honour the qualification by going to Rome and playing a good match against Norway.”

Norway took a big step toward qualifying for the tournament in France with a 2-0 win over Malta.

Alexander Tettey and Alexander Soderlund scored either side of halftime for Norway in Oslo.

Norway is seeking its second tournament appearance after exiting from the group stage in 2000.

Italy has 21 points in Group H, Norway is next with 19 and Croatia is third with 17. Bulgaria was eliminated with eight points, Azerbaijan has six and Malta two.

Croatia beat Bulgaria 3-0 with goals from Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Nikola Kalinic. The match was played in an empty stadium in Zagreb as part of the punishment for a swastika that was painted on the pitch before a match against Italy in June.

Croatia was also deducted a point for the swastika incident.

Croatia’s Duje Cop was shown a red card in the final minutes for a hard tackle.

The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically. The best third-place finisher also qualifies automatically, while the eight other third-place teams can reach the tournament through a playoff.

Norway is guaranteed at least a playoff spot, although Croatia holds the tiebreaker with a better head-to-head record.

Italy can secure first place against Norway in Rome on Tuesday, while Croatia visits Malta.

Still, winning the group might not be enough for Italy to get a top seed in the Euro 2016 draw.

“Croatia is ahead of us in the FIFA rankings but we’re ahead in the UEFA rankings,” Conte said. “These are mechanisms that I have a hard time understanding.”

The Azzurri are under pressure to perform after getting eliminated from the group stage at the last two World Cups. Since winning the 2006 World Cup, Italy’s only highlight was reaching the final of Euro 2012.

On a rainy evening in Baku, Azerbaijan played its first match in the new Olimpiya stadium, while Italy had to overcome the absence of injured playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

Eleven minutes in, Pirlo’s replacement Marco Verratti launched a long, vertical pass for Eder that gave the Brazilian-born forward plenty of room to glide past the defence and easily beat goalkeeper Kamran Agayev.

It was Eder’s second goal in five matches for Italy. He also has six goals in seven Serie A matches this season for Sampdoria.

Minutes later, Eder turned provider for Graziano Pelle, who shot on target and had Agayev tip his effort over the bar.

Just after the half-hour mark, a defensive lapse allowed Nazarov to score from the edge of the area, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci sharing the blame.

El Shaarawy restored Italy’s lead by redirecting a cross from Antonio Candreva into an empty net on a play that began with Pelle.

The son of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, the 22-year-old El Shaarawy has been hailed as one of Italy’s best young players for years but he struggled with injuries and confidence in recent seasons. After failing to make Italy’s squad for last year’s World Cup, El Shaarawy transferred from AC Milan to Monaco.

In the 61st, a lob effort from an outstanding Eder was cleared off the line by Azerbaijan captain Rashad Sadygov, who was celebrating his 100th national team appearance.

Four minutes later, Darmian got his first goal for Italy with a long, powerful effort after taking a loose ball beyond the area.

Azerbaijan defender Badavi Huseynov was shown a direct red card for a last-man foul on substitute Sebastian Giovinco in the 88th and Giovinco’s ensuing free kick hit the crossbar.

Euro 2016 qualifiers on Sportsnet: Watch 52 UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying matches live on Sportsnet and online at Sportsnet World NOW from Oct. 8-13, including games involving Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal. Consult the broadcast schedule || Sportsnet NOW

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — The Netherlands kept alive its hopes of qualifying for next year’s European Championship by beating Kazakhstan 2-1 on Saturday.

But Turkey went back into pole position to take third place in Group A and a playoff berth by beating the already-qualified Czech Republic 2-0.

Midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Wesley Sneijder scored in either half for the Netherlands to ensure the fight for third goes down to the final round of qualifiers on Tuesday. Islambek Kuat scored a consolation goal with the last touch of the match.

"I’m satisfied with this victory," said coach Danny Blind, who earned his first victory after losing his first two matches in charge.

Already-qualified Iceland squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Latvia.

The Netherlands went third ahead of the late match in Prague and Iceland’s draw put it top, one point ahead of the Czechs. But they didn’t stay there long.

Turkey pushed the Dutch back to fourth thanks to a 62nd-minute penalty by Selcuk Inan and Hakan Calhanoglu’s strike with 10 minutes left against the Czech Republic.

Turkey, two points ahead of the Dutch, plays Iceland on Tuesday, while the Netherlands hosts the Czech Republic in Amsterdam.

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson put Iceland two up within the first half hour, but Aleksandrs Cauna and Valerijs Sabala scored second-half goals to earn Latvia a point.

The Netherlands has not missed a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. The last time the team failed to qualify for the European Championship was in 1984.

"The most important thing was to win," Blind said. "That was the aim and how it happened didn’t matter."

Faced with a long injury list that included captain Arjen Robben and most of his first-choice defenders, Blind gave debuts to three players in the crucial match — defenders Kenneth Tete and Virgil van Dijk as well as winger Anwar El Ghazi.

Goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet became the fourth debutant of the night in Astana when he came on as a second half substitute for Tim Krul — himself a replacement for Jasper Cillessen, who was injured in the warmup.

Despite the many absentees, the Netherlands was never seriously troubled by Kazakhstan, though some Dutch players struggled to adapt to the artificial turf at Astana Arena — it was the first international for the Netherlands not played on grass.

The Dutch dominated in the first half but only managed to find the net once, when Wijnaldum ran onto El Ghazi’s pass and slotted a low, left-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net in the 33rd minute.

Either side of his assist, El Ghazi missed two good chances to crown his full international debut with a goal.

Veteran midfielder Sneijder doubled the Dutch lead in the 50th minute when he ran onto a layoff by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and hammered the ball high into the net.

Striker Robin van Persie was benched for most of the match, but replaced Huntelaar in the 87th minute to make his 100th international appearance.

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Despite a 2-0 defeat against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wales reached its first international tournament since 1958 on Saturday thanks to Cyprus beating Israel 2-1 in European Championship qualifying.

Belgium also qualified from Group B by beating Andorra 4-1, the country’s first Euros since co-hosting the tournament in 2000. The wait had been much longer for Wales, and both teams were celebrating on the pitch in Bosnia when news came through that Israel had lost.

"We didn’t know what the other result was but now we do and wow, I can’t explain how it feels," Wales manager Chris Coleman said. "We got a bit flustered in the second half but in the circumstances, you can understand."

Wales last played in a major tournament at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, meaning previous Wales internationals like Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs and Liverpool’s Ian Rush never had a chance to compete at the most prestigious level of international football.

But Coleman’s side is much more rounded than the teams Giggs and Rush played in.

Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey are the key players, but others like Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen and Swansea defender Ashley Williams have been essential in qualifying for next year’s competition in France with a game to spare.

"Growing up as young boy, everyone dreams of playing in a major tournament," Bale said. "To achieve it here is a dream come true but it doesn’t stop here.

"If we lose the ball we will fight for our teammate. We are like brothers on the pitch and that shows the togetherness in the squad. We have all fought deep and hard all qualification and this is what happens when you do that."

Ramsey was equally overwhelmed at his side securing one of the 24 places at Euro 2016.

"What a great moment for Welsh football," Ramsey said. "We’ve finally got into a major tournament. It is not going to sink in for a while."

Bosnia, meanwhile, kept its hopes alive of reaching a playoff with the win. Milan Djuric sent a looping header over Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in the 71st minute and the host doubled its lead in the last minute through Vedad Ibisevic.

But Wales’ qualification was already assured in Jerusalem, where Cyprus took all three points thanks to an 80th-minute goal from Jason Demetriou.

Cyprus had taken the lead with a header from Junior Dossa on 58, before Nir Bitton pulled a goal back on 76, but the teams were only level for four minutes.

Wales is now second in Group B on 18 points, two behind Belgium. Wales hosts Andorra in Cardiff on Tuesday, while Belgium is at home to Israel.

For Belgium, qualifying was more routine.

Radja Nainggolan, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Laurent Depoitre all scored for Marc Wilmots’ side, which was in control throughout the encounter, despite Andorra reducing the score to 2-1 with a penalty from Lima Sola.

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