Italy bounce back from first-minute shock as Barella strike sinks Albania

<span>Nicolò Barella is surrounded celebrates by his teammates after putting <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Italy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Italy</a> ahead.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer</span>

Italy’s title defence is alive and well for now. Expectations around Luciano Spalletti’s new-look side have been low but this win over the tournament’s rank outsiders, achieved despite a monumental scare inside the opening half-minute, was ultimately conducted with a familiar air of authority. Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolò Barella, the Internazionale pair, stepped up with decisive interventions in a remarkable opening quarter and the remainder was a successful exercise in the kind of game management that once seemed a national pastime.

Such a narrow margin of defeat may yet prove useful to Albania’s hopes of scraping third place in the group of death. If that proves unattainable they will, at least, depart with something to remember them by. Nedim Bajrami’s emphatic finish was the fastest goal in European Championship history and lifted the roof from a stadium that has surely never hosted anything like an Albanian influx that kept temperatures high throughout.

Related: Italy 2-1 Albania: Euro 2024 – live reaction

Bajrami ensured within 23 seconds that an already heady, febrile occasion would take its place in history. It was inevitable Albania would start aggressively, cajoled by a deafening support that occupied at least three quarters of this vast, dramatic venue, and Italy simply had not clocked in. The left-back Federico Di Marco’s throw-in, level with his own ‘D’, was aimed back towards Bastoni but landed well short as the intended recipient dithered. It was a gift for Bajrami, who was onto the loose ball in a flash and hammered past Gianluigi Donnarumma from the corner of the six-yard box.

Cue pandemonium among the estimated 50,000 Albanians who had, for the entire day, made Dortmund pulsate to their beat. Cars had trailed flags around the inner ringroad throughout the afternoon, horns sounding with them, and a swathe of their following had marched to the ground three and a half hours before kick-off. The atmosphere was intense but far from menacing: a group of Italian fans, comprehensively outnumbered, responded in good humour to a mass snapping of spaghetti outside a city centre cafe.

“These things can happen, because we switched off,” Spalletti said of the opener, before praising Italy’s response. “But we should appreciate the desire to play football even when the going got tough: to try and play that pass, even in a difficult situation.”

It was too much for Albania, who needed a measure of composure alongside their wild-eyed energy. They had already looked skittish at the back when Bastoni atoned for the earlier confusion. Di Marco took a short corner to Lorenzo Pellegrini and the latter angled a cross to the far post where the defender Bastoni, barely pressured, thudded a simple header past Thomas Strakosha. “We could have managed it better but we mustn’t forget we were up against a very good team,” the Albania manager, Sylvinho, said. “Italy quickened the tempo a great deal.”

It had been a breathless start and Italy, heads cleared, used their new momentum to turn the tables. Barella’s strike, rapped in first-time from 18 yards and leaving Strakosha rooted, was an impeccable display of technique but a mess from Albania’s perspective. A round of penalty box pinball, far from the first, finished with a snatched clearance from Jasir Asani that was returned with ruthless interest.

Only 16 minutes had passed and, after all that excitement, Italy had Albania where they wanted them. Until a late Asani shot that flew wide they controlled the rest of the first half, Jorginho a reliable metronome at the midfield’s base. Albania could make nothing stick and were thankful to Strakosha, flipping Davide Frattesi’s dink on to a post before saving from Gianluca Scamacca, for keeping enthusiasm high.

Could the underdogs, flat ever since that early whirlwind, escape the stranglehold and rebuild a head of steam? Kristjan Asllani, one of five Albania starters who perform in Serie A, slammed a free-kick into his clubmate Bastoni’s face but by the hour mark they had offered ­nothing else. Italy, generally operating with restraint but promisingly fluent in spells, came close again when Federico Chiesa curled a ­fraction off target.

The massed assembly in red and black contented themselves with whistling during Italy’s extended periods of possession. Sylvinho attempted to inject impetus with a double change; it brought a brief flurry that ended when Asllani miscued an ambitious volley.

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As the minutes ticked down Rey Manaj, another Albanian replacement, evaded Italy’s clutches and clipped past Donnarumma but across goal, a flick off the goalkeeper’s ribs proving vital. An equaliser had always been a theoretical risk and would have sent Spalletti raging. “We thought we were better than we are in too many situations,” he said. “We need to be meaner.”

He was left to ponder whether a smooth but physically middleweight team, who tackle Spain next, really could emulate the class of 2021. “To strive for that we only have one route, and that’s via good football,” he said. “The only thing that can save us is our brand of football.”