LEVERKUSEN, Germany (AP) — Italy will defend its European Championship title next year in Germany after a 0-0 draw with Ukraine on Monday was enough to secure its place.
The final whistle came as a relief for Italy after a tense game which forward Federico Chiesa called a “knockout match.”
Just over two months ago, Italy seemed in trouble after winning only one of its first three games in a tricky group which included European Championship runner-up England and North Macedonia again.
“I’m very happy for this qualification. It seemed almost impossible at the beginning of September, everyone was against us a bit but in the end we did it and we qualified,” Chiesa told Italian broadcaster Rai. “It was a knockout match, there was a lot of tension.”
Italy risked dropping into the playoffs if it lost to Ukraine — a sore point after missing out on a 2022 World Cup place by a playoff loss to North Macedonia. Ukraine goes into the playoffs instead.
The scoreless result came as something of a surprise after both teams created plenty of chances. Italy stayed devoted to coach Luciano Spalletti’s all-action attacking style despite needing only to avoid defeat.
Chiesa, Giovanni di Lorenzo and Davide Frattesi all missed excellent chances in the first half for Italy, for which goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma charged down a shot from Mykhailo Mudryk to stop Ukraine taking the lead after his own misjudgement off a long throw gave Mudryk the chance.
Ukraine’s players appealed vigorously for a penalty in stoppage time after Bryan Cristante seemed to have brought down Mudryk.
“Of course everyone is disappointed in terms of results, but not in terms of the game, because I think we did well against the European champion at the moment,” Oleksandr Zinchenko said after playing the game in midfield for Ukraine. “I’m pretty sure that we’re going to analyze this game, we’re going to take some positive things from it and we’re going to move forward. I still think that we have an amazing team and a bright future.”
The game was technically a home fixture for Ukraine but was played at Bayer Leverkusen’s stadium in Germany because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, it continued a tour of Europe after playing each of its four “home” games in qualifying in a different country — first Slovakia, then Poland, then the Czech Republic and now Germany.
Coach Serhiy Rebrov paid tribute to the crowd’s vocal support for the Ukrainian team and to Italy’s players for applauding the Ukrainian anthem. “It’s very emotional,” he said. After the final whistle as Italy celebrated, Ukraine’s players gathered around the center circle to pay tribute to the crowd, which included many Ukrainians.
Ukraine could still qualify for Euro 2024 via the playoffs. It will be Ukraine’s second time in succession in the playoffs to qualify for a major tournament, after missing out on a place at the 2022 World Cup in a loss to Wales.
AP Sports Writer Daniella Matar in Milan contributed.
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