Defending champions Italy needed a last-minute goal to eke out a 2-1 victory over lowly Cyprus in their opening 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier. Antonio Di Natale, with his second goal of the night, secured an undeserved three points for the Azzurri in this entertaining game in Group 8.
Italy were given an almighty scare by minnows Cyprus, who ran them ragged at times on a balmy Mediterranean evening. Di Natale opened the scoring with a raking shot from outside the 18-yard box with only eight minutes on the clock.
The goal came against the run of play, with the hosts having missed several golden opportunities to score first. But Cypriot heads did not drop and continued to take the game to their opponents, who lacked any fluidity in midfield.
In defence, early injuries to Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Gamberini seemed to unsettle the champions. Omonia winger Efstathios Aloneftis equalised on 28 minutes from close range, after a scramble in the box as Italy failed to deal with a low cross from Marios Nicolaou.
The pacey wide player caused trouble for the visitors all evening and should have got on the scoresheet with just four minutes gone if it wasn't for an outstretched arm from keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Several minutes later Buffon was called on to block another effort from striker Michalis Constanitnou. Captain Fabio Cannavaro, who missed UEFA EURO 2008 through injury, also saved his team by stopping a goal-bound shot from Constantinou.
With Constantinos Charalambides and Costantinos Makridis orchestrating the middle of the park, Cyprus made their world class counterparts Pirlo and De Rossi look ordinary at times. The second half followed much the same pattern with Cyprus taking the initiative while the Italians looked to break on the counter-attack.
Gennaro Gattuso came on after the interval for an ineffectual Luca Toni to bolster the midfield and help repress the Cypriot attack. Alberto Gilardino also laboured up front but he had a great chance to score when put through on goal but keeper Antonis Giorgallides stuck out a leg to force the ball wide. The keeper nearly gave a goal away when he fumbled a shot but defender Elias Charalambous cleared off the line on 69 minutes.
Cypriot wonderkid Demetris Christofi almost scored an unlikely winner on 75 minutes after coming off the bench but with only Buffon to beat he lost his balance and shot wide. The most expensive player in Cypriot football also had a free shot from a corner but his effort went agonisingly wide with ten minutes to go.
Italy endured several more close calls in the latter stages before Di Natale scored the unlikely winner, much to the relief of Italy manager Marcello Lippi on his competitive return to the hotseat having replaced Roberto Donadoni.