ROME: Italy started its World Cup qualifying campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Northern Ireland as the Azzurri set out to rectify their failures from four years ago.
Italy didn't qualify the 2018 World Cup in Russia - missing the tournament for the first time in six decades - but cemented its status as the Group C favorite as Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile scored in the first half in Parma on Thursday. "The first half was excellent and we should've scored more goals," Italy coach Roberto Mancini said.
"The ball was moving quickly, it was perfect. We scored two goals and we could have scored another two at least. We'll have to review the second half because we must do better than that. Perhaps we started to take a few too many touches and the ball moved slowly. It can happen after five months of not seeing each other," he added.
Italy next has two away matches, against Bulgaria on Sunday and Lithuania three days later. Northern Ireland hosts Bulgaria next Wednesday. Switzerland won 3-1 in Bulgaria in the other Group C match. Italy had only lost once to Northern Ireland, in nine meetings, although that defeat saw it fail to qualify for the 1958 World Cup.
Berardi opened the scoring with the first real chance as he ran onto a ball over the top from Alessandro Florenzi, burst down the right and cut inside before firing into the roof of the net from a tight angle. It was Berardi's fourth goals in his past five Italy matches.
Italy almost doubled its lead moments later, following another dangerous ball over the top, but Northern Ireland goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell saved Immobile's shot. Immobile did get on the scoresheet six minutes from halftime, running onto Lorenzo Insigne's through ball and firing into the bottom left corner.
It was a Immobile's first Italy goal since 2019 and the Lazio forward - who won the European Golden Shoe last year - celebrated by punching and kicking the corner flag. "I felt a weight off my shoulders, I hadn't scored for a year and a half for Italy. It was a release, an important goal for me and for the team, seeing as the match was a bit complicated," Immobile said.
There was a scare for Italy 10 minutes after the break as a poor backpass from Azzurri midfielder Manuel Locatelli set clear Gavin Whyte but goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma parried with his feet and then made a second save to deny Michael Smith.
It was another clean sheet for Italy, which has now conceded just three goals in 13 matches. In Sofia, Switzerland scored all its goals in the first 13 minutes on its way to a comfortable win.
Breel Embolo headed Switzerland in front in the seventh minute, Haris Seferovic doubled the visitor's lead in the 10th with a fine strike into the bottom left corner and Steven Zuber tapped in three minutes later after fine work from Xherdan Shaqiri.
Kiril Despodov pulled one back for Bulgaria right at the start of the second half. Switzerland is hoping to qualify for a fifth successive World Cup for the first time. Bulgaria has not reached the World Cup since 1998 when it went out in the group stage, four years after a fourth-place finish.