Italy played the entire second half with 10 men after Pablo Daniel Osvaldo’s foolish dismissal, but Mario Balotelli was inspirational in a 3-1 win over Denmark and earned a standing ovation. The Czech Republic and Bulgaria drew 0-0 tonight, so the Azzurri extend their lead at the top of Group B to four points.
There were several changes from the side that won 3-1 in Armenia on Friday, as Gianluigi Buffon failed a fitness test on his minor thigh strain to end his run of 15 consecutive Italy appearances, while Mario Balotelli recovered from flu for his first cap since the Euro 2012 Final. Napoli goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis took the gloves, while Giorgio Chiellini, Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti stepped in for Andrea Bonucci, Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito. The Danes counted on Nicklas Bendtner, who has so far played only 10 minutes with Juventus. Michael Silberbauer was a last-minute entry after Simon Poulsen pulled out in the warm-up.
The Azzurri returned to San Siro after five years, having played 36 victories, 14 stalemates and only two losses in this arena. They hoped to defend their strong record against Denmark of seven wins, one draw and three defeats.
Denmark were immediately dangerous on the counter-attack, as Bendtner steered a free header well wide. A poor backpass from Chiellini put De Sanctis in trouble, but the Napoli man was just about able to clear as Christian Eriksen came bearing down on him.
Denmark were brighter in the final third and De Sanctis flew to palm a fierce Michael Krohn-Dehli strike out from under the bar. With Claudio Marchisio down with a shoulder injury, play continued and chaotic defending managed to stop Denmark from scoring, as Balotelli eventually hoofed it clear.
Balotelli had robbed a defender and was fouled, but the referee did not give the advantage as Riccardo Montolivo surged forward.
Yet the Azzurri had a great chance on 19 minutes, denied only by a Simon Kjaer goalline clearance. Balotelli pulled back to the D where Marchisio controlled and unleashed a rocket, but the ex-Roma defender was ready on the line.
Italy again went so close, as Ignazio Abate’s cross from the right went past Balotelli and the goalkeeper, but Pablo Daniel Osvaldo nodded wide at the back post! They had apparently shaken off the nerves of the opening 15 minutes and began pressing harder.
Abate had to boot clear when a corner was not dealt with effectively, taking it off the foot of Dennis Rommedahl. Moments later, De Sanctis had to use his knee to parry a William Kvist angled drive at the near post and the ball could’ve gone anywhere, looping off target. From the corner, Daniel Agger’s header landed on the roof of the net.
However, Italy then surged up the other end to take the lead. Balotelli flicked the ball up off the outside of his boot while being fouled by Agger to set up Montolivo, whose screamer from the edge of the box flew in at the near post with Stephan Andersen rooted to the spot. It was the Milan midfielder’s second goal in the Azzurri jersey after netting against Spain in 2011.
Balotelli was fired up and committed to the Italy cause, keeping the ball in play at the by-line and blocked off by Agger as Montolivo forced a corner. From that set play, Andrea Pirlo curled it on to the cushioned header of De Rossi from five yards for his third goal in four games. De Rossi was booked moments later and will be suspended for Italy’s next match.
Denmark pulled one back in first half stoppages. A Lars Jacobsen cross to the edge of the box found a Kvist volley with the inside of the right foot that bounced in front of De Sanctis to fly in at the near stick.
Osvaldo potentially wrecked his Italy career for some time, as just 16 seconds after the restart he was pressured by Nicolai Stokholm and lashed out after the ball had been released. The referee spotted it and flashed the straight red card. The Roma man has had problems with his temper and disciplinary record, as this is the eighth dismissal of his career, so Prandelli will not look kindly on this futile gesture.
Italy were under pressure, but Balotelli stepped up with a great goal to restore their advantage. Captain Pirlo launched an inspired long ball over the top and SuperMario was at full stretch with a cheeky toe-poke to beat the on-rushing goalkeeper from 12 yards.
Agger went down under a Balotelli nudge as the Manchester City striker went clear on goal, earning Denmark a free kick. Mario chipped a pass over Agger that De Rossi just failed to make contact with in the six-yard box.
Christian Eriksen drilled over the bar from distance, but Marchisio had to come off after aggravating an old shoulder injury. The Juventus midfielder had picked up the knock in the opening minutes, but was able to continue until the 74th minute when he made way for Antonio Candreva.
De Sanctis dropped a corner, but fortunately managed to grab hold of it on the way down. Bendtner was a threat in the Italy box, but gave away several free kicks for pushing in the area and was eventually booked.
Another Montolivo long-range strike forced the goalkeeper into a double save, then Rommedahl’s angled drive whistled wide with Bendtner unable to get a final touch. Emanuele Giaccherini replaced a tired Montolivo to bring fresh legs in the final minutes and Eriksen’s free kick was deflected off the wall for a corner.
Balotelli was greeted a standing ovation at San Siro, his former hunting ground, as he made way for Mattia Destro. The Manchester City man hadn’t played in this stadium for two-and-a-half years.
Italy 3-1 Denmark
Scorers: Montolivo 33 (I), De Rossi 37 (I), Kvist 45 (D), Balotelli 54 (I)
Italy: De Sanctis; Abate, Barzagli, Chiellini, Balzaretti; De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio (Candreva 74); Montolivo (Giaccherini 85); Balotelli (Destro 89), Osvaldo
Denmark: Andersen; Jacobsen, Kjaer, Agger, Silberbauer (Lorentzen 72); Rommedahl, Stokholm, Kvist (Kahlenberg 59), Eriksen; Krohn-Dehli (J Poulsen 83), Bendtner
Ref: Skomina (SLO)
Sent off: Osvaldo 46 (I)
Think you know your Italian football? Share your knowledge, tips and comments to win cash prizes in OLBG's tipster competition - £5,000 monthly.