Antonio Cassano scored a brace to ruin Nigel Worthington's last match in charge of Northern Ireland as Italy ran out 3-0 winners at the Stadio Adriatico today. Gareth McAuley scored an unfortunate own goal late on.
The result ensured Italy, who had already qualified for the UEFA EURO 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine next year as group C winners, finished their campaign unbeaten. For Northern Ireland it concluded a disappointing qualification in which they finished above only the Faroe Islands.
Although here they could hardly be faulted in a game in which the tiny nation was missing a host of regular starters. In a low key start the first chance of note saw Italy come under pressure from a woeful backpass by Federico Balzaretti. However, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon came charging out to hack the ball clear as David Healy raced in on goal.
Italy centre-back Giorgio Chiellini had a sniff when he rose at the back post to meet Sebastian Giovinco's corner, but he couldn't find the target from two yards out. The hosts took the lead on 21 minutes after a raking ball over the top from Daniele De Rossi picked out Cassano, who met it with a sublime volley across Maik Taylor.
Ryan McGiven almost equalised with a firm header from a free-kick, but Buffon pulled off a brilliant diving one-handed save. Balzaretti then got away with a tug on Andrew Little's shirt, as the winger was racing in on goal, that was just enough to put the Irishman off.
McGiven then made a crucial challenge to deny Cassano a scoring opportunity, although the Italian went sprawling, clearly looking for a penalty. Before the half finished Giovinco sent two shots flashing over and a third was saved by 40-year-old goalkeeper Taylor.
Having overplayed the tricks and flicks in the first period, the Azzurri started the second more purposefully. Riccardo Montolivo arrowed a shot past the upright, but then Cassano latched onto Alberto Aquilani's through ball on 53 minutes and shot low across Taylor, who seemed surprised when the ball sneaked inside the far post. Aquilani had a shot whisk just past the post while Taylor tipped a Montolivo effort around the upright.
But then 16 minutes from time a comical mix up between Taylor and McAuley saw the centre-back bundle the ball into his own net. The biggest cheer of the night was then given to local-boy Morgan De Sanctis, who began his career at Pescara, as he replaced Buffon.