By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) – Italy secured a place at next year’s European Championship finals with three games to spare thanks to a 2-0 win over Greece at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.
A second-half penalty from Chelsea midfielder Jorginho gave the hosts the lead before Federico Bernardeschi drilled in the winner 12 minutes from time.
Roberto Mancini’s side have won all seven of their qualifying matches and top Group J on 21 points, having ended fifth-placed Greece’s slim hopes of qualification.
Finland suffered a thumping 4-1 defeat away to Bosnia & Herzegovina but remain second on 12 points, two ahead of Bosnia and Armenia, who missed a golden opportunity to go joint second when they were held to a 1-1 draw away to rock-bottom Liechtenstein.
Italy, dressed in their controversial new green shirt for the first time instead of the usual blue, toiled during the first half as a well-drilled Greek side stopped the hosts from registering any shots on target despite them boasting 72% of possession.
Mancini’s side found the breakthrough when Lorenzo Insigne’s shot was blocked by the arm of defender Andreas Bouchalakis just after the hour mark, and Jorginho sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from the resulting spot kick.
The result was put beyond doubt late on when substitute Bernardeschi fired a shot into the bottom corner from outside the box.
“We were too frenetic in the first half but should’ve patiently moved the ball around to open up spaces,” Mancini told Rai Sport. “Instead, we started long balls and that’s no good.
“It was a much more relaxed second half, we kept focused and achieved our objective.”
Victory assured Italy, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals, of top spot in their group and extended their winning run to eight matches in all competitions, one short of the all-time record set by Vittorio Pozzo’s side of 1938/39.
An intriguing battle for second place is developing after two goals from Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic helped Bosnia & Herzegovina to thrash Finland 4-1 in Zenica.
Izet Hajrovic and Armin Hodzic also found the net for the hosts either side of a penalty and volley from Pjanic, while Joel Pohjanpalo bagged a late consolation for the Finns.
Armenia squandered the chance to draw level with Finland on 12 points after they took the lead away to Liechtenstein through Tigran Barseghyan, only for Yanik Frick to equalise with 18 minutes remaining.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)