Italians prove too strong for Saudi Arabia in pre-World Cup friendly

Nice striker Mario Balotelli scores as Mancini starts Italy reign with a win
Italy's forward Mario Balotelli (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal during the friendly football match between Italy and Saudi Arabia at Kybunpark stadium in St Gallen on May 28, 2018.
By AFP
Tue 29 May 2018 08:33 AM

Mario Balotelli got new Italy coach Roberto Mancini off to a winning start by scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in a pre-World Cup friendly in Saint Gallen on Monday.

Saudi Arabia face hosts Russia in the opening match of the tournament on June 14 while four-time champions Italy stay home following their failure to qualify for the first time in 60 years.

Made the scapegoat for Italy's first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup, Balotelli's four-year Azzurri hiatus ended when he was recalled by Mancini, appointed six months after Italy's shock failure to qualify for Russia following a playoff defeat to Sweden.

It took the 27-year-old Nice striker just 21 minutes to get on the scoreboard with his first goal for Italy since netting the winner against England at the 2014 World Cup.

Substitute Andrea Belotti added a second midway through the second half before Yahya Al-Shehri pulled one back for the Saudis following Italian defensive blunders.

"In the second half we held our own against one of the best teams in the world," said Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi. "Although they are not in the World Cup, they have a great coach, an unparalleled history."

The Saudis play two more warm-up games, against Peru on June 3 and Germany on June 8 before kicking off their World Cup campaign.

"I'm satisfied with the first half-performance. The difficulties of the second half were down to tiredness due to the extra fitness training we've been doing over the last few days," said Mancini.

"Saudi Arabia are approaching peak form because they are going to the World Cup. I wasn't angry about the goal we conceded. I thought it was down to fatigue."

Italy have dropped to their lowest ever world ranking of 20th, but were in control against the 67th-ranked Saudis.

Both Mancini and Saudi coach Pizzi made substitutions in the second half with Balotelli making way for Belotti after 58 minutes.

And the 24-year-old Torino striker scored the second when he turned in a rebound ten minutes later.

Al-Shehri pulled Saudi Arabia back into the game four minutes later taking advantage of defensive error by Davide Zappacosta.

Leganes winger Al-Shehri picked up a Salem Al Dawsari flick and fired past the outrushing Donnarumma into an empty net.

After Donnarumma denied Fahad Al Muwallad a late equaliser Italy held on for their first win since their 1-0 World Cup qualifier away to Albania on October 9, which was followed by two draws and two defeats.

Italy play two more friendlies, against France on June 1 in Nice and the Netherlands on June 4 in Turin.

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Last Updated: Tue 29 May 2018 09:48 AM GST

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