MILAN (Reuters) - Italy recovered from Saturday’s mauling by Spain to beat Israel 1-0 in their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, although it was far from plain sailing as they were jeered by the home crowd at halftime.
Forward Ciro Immobile came to Italy’s rescue early in the second half when he headed the only goal in the Group G game after a sluggish first-half performance saw the four-times world champions roundly booed.
Italy, playing in front of a two-thirds full stadium in Reggio Emilia, stayed second with 13 points and on course for a place in the European playoff round, a nerve-wracking prospect which already has the Italian public and media on edge.
The nine group winners qualify directly for Russia, and the best eight runners-up take part in two-legged matches for a further four places.
Leaders Spain, whose 3-0 win in Madrid on Saturday exposed a huge gulf in quality between the two rivals, stayed three points clear by beating Liechtenstein 8-0 away.
The good news for Italy was that they need only one more point to guarantee second spot after third-placed Albania were held 1-1 in Macedonia and dropped six points behind.
“We did badly in the first half but we were much better in the second, we loosened up and things sorted themselves out more easily,” said Italy coach Giampiero Ventura.
Italy nearly took the lead after 40 seconds when Andrea Belotti fired wide after a neat move down the left but that was as good as it got for the hosts.
Once again playing with Ventura’s much-criticised 4-2-4 formation, they had no idea how to break down the wall of Israeli defenders and were reduced to passing the ball aimlessly around in midfield.
That gave Israel heart and they began to pluck up the courage to push forward.
Marwan Kabha surged through the heart of the Italian defence and was only blocked by Andrea Conti at the last minute, then Almog Cohen forced Gianluigi Buffon to make a difficult save from his powerful drive.
After surviving that fright, Italy made a much livelier start to the second half and went ahead when Antonio Candreva got to the byline and crossed to the far post for Immobile to power his header past Israel goalkeeper Ariel Harush in the 53rd minute.
Belotti was twice denied by Harush, whose one-handed stop from his header was especially impressive, although there was another fright in store for the hosts when Tal Ben Chaim tried to lob the ball over Buffon, but the 39-year-old was equal to it.
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Toby Davis