Scandal-hit Italy maintains Euro 2024 push with Malta win
Beleaguered Italy bounced back from a scandal-hit week on Saturday by strolling to a 4-0 win over Malta which maintained second place in Euro 2024 qualifying Group C.
Domenico Berardi's double, Giacomo Bonaventura's first Italy goal and a late strike from Davide Frattesi gave the European champions an expected win against rock-bottom Malta to reclaim the second automatic qualifying spot from Ukraine who beat North Macedonia 2-0 earlier in the day.
Luciano Spalletti's side are level on 10 points with Ukraine and three points behind leaders England ahead of Tuesday's key clash at Wembley where the Azzurri won the last Euro just over two years ago.
"That match is where we will really see how much potential we have," said Spalletti to broadcaster RAI.
Italy return to the site of their greatest triumph since winning the 2006 World Cup while Ukraine face sorry Malta in Ta' Qali.
Malta are yet to register a single point after six matches in the five-team group and on the basis of Saturday's showing are unlikely to put up much resistance against Ukraine.
That means anything but another victory over England will likely leave Italy third ahead of their final two matches in November -- North Macedonia in Rome and Ukraine in Leverkusen.
"It will definitely be emotional, I have amazing memories from that stadium," said Berardi, who netted a penalty in Italy's shoot-out final win over England.
"We'll go there trying to do what we did today, play our own game and look to win."
Saturday's win in front of over 56,000 fans in Bari came after a difficult few days for the Italy squad, with injuries and a betting scandal hampering Spalletti's preparations for two crucial matches.
The former Napoli coach lost striker Federico Chiesa and Mattia Zaccagni to injury over the past two days after also having to leave out strikers Ciro Immobile and Mateo Retegui from his initial squad.
Even worse, Sandro Tonali and Nicolo Zaniolo were allowed to leave the Coverciano training camp on Thursday after being questioned for two hours by criminal prosecutors over alleged gambling offences.
That investigation, and parallel football federation probes, are set to hang over the game in Italy as they try to reach next summer's tournament in Germany after missing the last World Cup.
In-form Fiorentina midfielder Bonaventura got the ball rolling midway through the first half when he opened his international account with a beautifully struck curling shot.
And Berardi doubled the hosts' lead on the stroke of half-time with a pearl of a strike from the edge of the area which flew past Malta goalkeeper Henry Bonello and crashed in off the post.
That was Berardi's first Italy goal since October 2021 and the Sassuolo winger capped a perfect evening when he thumped home Italy's third in the 64th minute.
Gianluigi Donnarumma snuffed out a Malta counter and launched an attack down the left flank from where Giacomo Raspadori's flashed low cross evaded Moise Kean but fell perfectly for Berardi, whose perfectly struck first-time finish sealed the points.
Frattesi then drilled home the fourth, and his fourth in eight Italy matches, deep in stoppage time to put the cherry on the cake.