KEIR RADNEDGE in DORTMUND: Italy have suffered all manner of trials and tribulations since being crowned European champions in 2021 after beating hosts England in a penalty shootout at Wembley.

They had failed to qualify for the finals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and lost coach Roberto Mancini to Saudi Arabian cash in the early stages of the Euro qualifiers. Hence even more pressure than usual weighed on the Azzurri in opening their title defence with a 2-1 defeat of Albania in Dortmund.

The margin of victory should have been more emphatic against an Albania side who attacked only their second major tournament with courage, determination and no little skill.

At Felix Zwayer’s final whiste, however, it was Italy who came away with three points which were essential after Spain, their most threatening rivals in the tournament’s Group of Death, had delivered an outstanding performance in despatching Croatia two hours earlier.

This had been effectively an away fixture for coach Luciano Spalletti’s men. Italian fans had nominally been allocated the iconic Yellow Wall end but their blue was overwhelmed by the massed red phalanx of the Albania fans who also ‘owned’ the rest of Borussia Dortmund’s home for the night.

The fists were pumping and the double-headed eagle flags were flying high after only 23 seconds, all the time it took for Nedim Bajrami to strike the fastest goal in the history of the European Championship.

The Swiss-born 25-year-old, who plays his club football for Italy’s Sassuolo, drove in from the right and thrashing an unstoppable shot up past Gianluigi Donnarumma on the keeper’s near post.

Italy, to their credit, refused to panic, pressed forward tightly and equalised in the 11th minute. Federico Dimarco picked up a short corner and crossed into the goal area for Alessandro Bastoni to head home. Five more minutes and Italy were ahead as Nicolo Barella punished Albania for failing to clear their defensive lines.

Barella had already been skipping around nimbly in midfield, showing no ill effect from the muscle trouble which had forced him to miss two of Italy’s pre-tournament friendlies.

Italy might have had a third in the 33rd minute when Albania’s defence caved in again but Davide Frattesi’s clip, with a touch of keeper Thomas Strakosha’s fingertips, struck a post. For the first time chants of “Italia, Italia!” rose above the general cacophony.

Albania ran and scuffled with desperate endeavour in the second half but every time they strung a few passes together so Italy reclaimed possession and played keepball to the angry irritation of the Albanian fans.

Frattesi went close again while Albanian substitute Rey Manaj provided a stoppage-time scare for Donnarumma but in the end Italy won by the odd goal . . . as so often in the past.