Italy survive early Albania scare as Euro 2024 continues its rollicking good start

Dave Tickner
Nicolo Barella scores Italy's winner against Albania at Euro 2024
Nicolo Barella scores Italy's winner against Albania

Really don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, but Euro 2024 is absolutely definitely going down as a great tournament, isn’t it?

We’re now four games in with not even the hint of a dud in sight; if we can all somehow get through Slovenia v Denmark tomorrow with that record intact then we’re going all-in and declaring this tournament an all-timer.

The reason we’re so confident is that the early signs are that this is going to be a front-foot tournament, and a lot of major tournaments just aren’t that.

Now it’s easy enough to dismiss Germany’s rout of Poor Old Scotland as a simple outclassing, while here Italy’s first-minute catastrof*ck forced their hand against another of the tournament’s weaker sides in Albania.

But we’ve also seen a pair of games between teams of broadly similar standing and ambition – Hungary v Switzerland and Spain v Croatia – and both those were won handily by the team that made a concerted proactive effort to get on the front foot rather than the team that reacted to events.

This was a slightly different game to the first three, but there were also plenty of glimpses – certainly in that first half – of a pleasingly proactive Italy looking to make the most of their attacking strength. Gianluca Scamacca provided more evidence that there is quite simply no striker signing who will ever work out at West Ham and that form there should just be struck from the record, while Lorenzo Pellegrini’s runs beyond the front man frequently managed to catch a six-man low-block unawares while Davide Frattesi and Federico Chiesa were enterprising throughout.

The obvious standout was the strike from Nicolo Barella to put Italy in front, with the classic ‘only surprise’ being that it represented the last of the day’s scoring.

Albania’s goal after 24 seconds – the fastest in Euros history and just Albania’s second ever goal in the finals – seemed to catch them as much by surprise as it did Italy. In the end, they opted to retreat perhaps too quickly and too completely into what would’ve been an understandable pre-match ambition to stifle and frustrate the holders.

This might genuinely be a vanishingly rare example of a team actually scoring too early in a game.

Their 4-3-3 was a 6-2-2 by the time they found themselves 2-1 down 15 minutes later and unsure how to proceed.

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Albania were, though, rather better in the second half. Italy were less sure of themselves without the imperative that their early position imposed upon them. Certainly there was nothing about today’s games that suggests Croatia can be entirely certain of a nice easy and absolutely vital three points when they face Albania next in Group B.

As for Italy, the calm and clinical response to going behind so farcically and so early showed plenty of steel. In all, it felt like a performance that shows why they absolutely could once again prevail in a wide-open tournament, but also one that highlighted why they won’t.

There was a lot to like about their football, but in a theoretically easier game they appeared less dynamic than Spain and less clinically destructive than Germany.

Quality remains in that defence but it simply isn’t the one that provided the rock-solid foundation of their success three years ago.

Italy made this harder than it should have been – both with the comical early goal conceded and the failure to find a two-goal cushion at any stage in a second half that therefore grew increasingly fraught – but in this group beating Albania is the starting point of any strategy and Italy have done that.

A win in your first game in a group stage that reduces 24 teams to 16 doesn’t quite guarantee progression but it’s not that far off. The holders are up and running.