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Italy concedes goal after 23 seconds but recovers to beat Albania 2-1 at Euro 2024

DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — By conceding a goal after just 23 seconds, Italy made the worst possible start to its European Championship title defense.

Thankfully for the Azzurri, it soon got much better.

Italy recovered from letting in the quickest goal in the tournament’s 64-year history to beat Albania 2-1 in Dortmund on Saturday in an atmospheric Adriatic derby that immediately threatened an upset.

Nedim Bajrami thrilled a heavily pro-Albanian crowd at Westfalenstadion by pouncing on a throw-in by Italy left back Federico Dimarco that failed to reach teammate Alessandro Bastoni, before taking a touch and smashing a rising shot inside the near post.

Within 16 minutes, the Italians were ahead as Bastoni headed in Lorenzo Pellegrini’s cross to the back post in the 11th then Nicolo Barella struck home a swerving first-time shot from the edge of the area.

Barella was one of five survivors from the team that started for Italy in the penalty-shootout win over England in the 2021 European Championship final.

The pressure was on Italy’s new-look side under Luciano Spalletti to win its opener given the other teams in Group B are three-time champion Spain and Croatia, a World Cup semifinalist in 2022. Spain beat Croatia 3-0 earlier Saturday.

Bajrami’s goal gave the Azzurri a jolt and created some history — it was much quicker than the previous fastest in the tournament’s lifespan, which was 67 seconds by Russia’s Dmitri Kirichenko in 2004.

Yet they controlled the game after that, dominating possession to a backdrop of jeers and boos from a sea of Albanian red in the crowd.

“They showed there was a gulf in class by playing good football … we played the game the right way,” Spalletti said.

“The scoreline doesn’t reflect the difference between the two teams.”

It's now just one loss in 12 matches under Spalletti, who took over last August — three months after leaving Napoli following its Italian league triumph — and was tasked with restoring national pride after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for a second straight time.

Italy is clearly more at home in the European Championship these days as it goes for a record-tying third title.

Making its second appearance at a European Championship, Albania — coached by former Barcelona and Arsenal defender Sylvinho — nearly grabbed a draw in stoppage time only for Rey Manaj's deft chip to deflect just wide off the back of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy's goalkeeper and captain.

“We need to play in lots of Euros and World Cups so we can get better,” Sylvinho said. "The first 25 minutes were tough but we were up against one of the favorites to win the comp.

“We didn’t play those first 25 minutes well but we stayed in the game.”

Euro 2024 has gotten off to a fast start.

Saturday started with Switzerland beating Hungary 3-1 in Cologne and that, after host Germany's opening-night 5-1 thrashing of Scotland on Friday, means there has been 16 goals so far — an average of four a game.

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AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024