PALERMO, Sicily (AP) — Giorgio Chiellini scored twice for Italy and netted an own goal for Azerbaijan in a 2-1 win in European Championship qualifying Friday as the Azzurri remained perfect under new coach Antonio Conte.
Azerbaijan defended with 10 men and Italy had trouble creating opportunities until Chiellini took advantage of an error by the goalkeeper to give the Azzurri the lead in the 44th minute. Chiellini then scored into his own net in the 76th as he attempted to defend a corner kick but he made up for his error by heading in again in the 82nd.
"In good and bad I did it all," said Chiellini, the victim of Luis Suarez's bite at the World Cup. "But the important thing is we came out on top."
Croatia, which won 1-0 at Bulgaria, shares the Group H lead with Italy with six points each. Bulgaria and Norway, which won 3-0 at Malta, are next with three points each while Azerbaijan and Malta trail with zero. The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically. The best third-placed team also qualifies automatically, and the other eight can qualify through a playoff.
In Bulgaria, Nikolay Bodurov scored an own goal for Croatia in the 36th. Norway got two goals from Blackburn forward Joshua King, who also set up the opening score from Mats Moller Daehli.
Italy beat Norway in its opening qualifier and was also a winner over the Netherlands in a friendly to open Conte's tenure. The former Juventus manager has still not called up Mario Balotelli, and while Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza performed well in the opening two matches, they struggled for stretches this time.
"I have little to criticize the lads about," Conte said. "Azerbaijan came here not to play but to hope for some fortunate dead ball opportunities."
At Palermo's Renzo Barbera stadium, Italy was in control from the start but appeared paralyzed by the constant defensive pressure surrounding midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who made his return to the national team for the first time since the World Cup. At one point, Conte ordered Pirlo to exchange positions with center back Andrea Ranocchia to shed the choking coverage.
But Pirlo still appeared frustrated, as evidenced when he drew a yellow card for a sliding tackle on Rauf Aliyev in the 33rd. Italy's best chances early on were on set pieces, such as when Pirlo set up a header for Ranocchia that sailed high in the 37th.
Azerbaijan didn't produce a single shot until the 40th when Rufat Dadasov launched an attempt from 40 meters (yards) that flew about 10 meters (yards) over the target. Four minutes later, Kamran Agayev ventured out of his goal and attempted to punch away a corner kick but Chiellini — risking a fist to the face — beat him to the ball and headed in to the empty net.
Zaza nearly scored a spectacular goal in the 47th. Attempting a bicycle kick with his back to the goal his effort went just wide. Azerbaijan hardly threatened until a corner kick in the 76th. While attempting to defend Rauf Aliyev near the far post, Chiellini instead redirected the ball into his own net. The ball touched goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon last although it appeared to have already crossed the line at that point.
Substitute Sebastian Giovinco set up the winner with a cross from the right that Chiellini headed inside the near post from the edge of the box. Giovinco then nearly made it 3-1 with a long shot that hit the crossbar in the added time.
On Monday, Italy makes a short trip to visit Malta, Azerbaijan plays at Croatia and Norway hosts Bulgaria.