Ten-man Italy earned a hard-fought 3-1 win away to Israel in their opening Group G World Cup qualifier on Monday after Giorgio Chiellini was sent off early in the second half.
The Italians took a two-goal lead with just over half an hour gone when Graziano Pelle slotted home in the 14th minute and Antonio Candreva converted a penalty in the 31st.
Israel got themselves back into the match in the 35th when forward Tal Ben Chaim lofted a ball over goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who was caught off his line, and the momentum shifted.
They received a further boost in the 55th when defender Chiellini was sent off for the first time in an international after a second booking and the hosts pushed for an equaliser.
But Israel squandered a handful of chances and were dealt a final blow in the 83rd minute when Italy substitute Ciro Immobile powered past the defence and blasted home a low shot from the right of the area to secure all three points.
Italy coach Giampiero Ventura was delighted with the win from his first qualifying fixture in charge following a 3-1 defeat by France in a friendly last week.
“This was not an easy international fixture... I am happy with the result, even though the game did get a bit complicated after the Israeli goal but we managed to get through it.”
A first half that began tentatively erupted when Pelle scored from close range after a defensive lapse on the left allowed Luca Antonelli to cross for the unmarked forward.
Italy looked to be cruising as the Israelis, rank outsiders even at home in front of a 29,300 crowd at Haifa’s Sammy Ofer Stadium, were dominated by their more accomplished opponents.
The visitors doubled their lead with Candreva’s spot kick after defender Nir Bitton brought down Marco Verratti.
Israel’s fate appeared to be sealed but five minutes later striker Ben Chaim received a headed ball from Tomer Hemed 20 metres out on the right and, spotting Buffon off his line, chipped the ball elegantly into the back of the net.
Israel coach Elisha Levy was encouraged by the performance despite the defeat in his first competitive match in charge.
“We competed well and pressed hard, there was good momentum and we could have changed things, but I am disappointed by the result because we battled from the start but we were facing one of the best teams in the world,” he told reporters.