Football: Casiraghi clincher

Italy 1 Casiraghi 53 Russia 0 Attendance: 76,500 Italy win 2-1 on aggregate
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The Independent Online
Pierluigi Casiraghi, the striker who interested Blackburn Rovers, scored the goal that put Italy into the World Cup finals here last night.

The runners-up in England's qualifying group had done a large amount of the hard work in the play-off by forcing a 1-1 draw in Moscow 18 days ago, but they was still had to be wary of a talented opponent who had finished their group campaign behind Bulgaria. Casiraghi, who scored both goals in Italy's 2-1 victory over Russia at last year's European championship, ran on to a through ball by Albertini to set his side on the road to France with a low drive past Sergei Ovchinnikov in the Russian goal.

Italy's coach, Cesare Maldini, summed up the pressure on the players in the intense atmosphere of the San Paolo stadium. "It was one of those heartbreaking matches that can be decided at any moment," he said as he put aside the emotion of the moment to offer a post-match assessment. "Our team showed great character."

The first half was particularly tense and close, but Italy had the edge, with Ovchinnikov the busier of the goalkeepers. Fabrizio Ravanelli gave the Russians an early warning with a powerful header that just flew over the bar from Paolo Maldini's looping cross after nine minutes. But Italy were almost caught on the break in the 24th minute after Albertini lost possession in midfield and Dmitri Khokhlov surged forwards. He supplied a square pass to Sergei Yuran, but the shot from the former Millwall striker, who now plays in Germany for VfL Bochum, did not trouble Angelo Peruzzi in the Italian goal.

Ravanelli smacked a free-kick over the bar three minutes later in reply, but most of the intelligent football at that stage - as the growing whistles from the 70,000 crowd testified - was coming from the Russians. However, the match began to swing Italy's way and the Russians only just managed to clear the ball out of their area after a goalmouth melee in the 34th minute. Ovchinnikov needed to punch away a fine header from Ciro Ferrara minutes later.

Italy, more urgent after the break, kept up the pressure, with Di Matteo hitting a 22-yard drive to test Ovchinnikov in the 51st minute and Maldini sending in an angled drive that was just off target. The tension in the stadium was dispelled a minute later when Casiraghi raced on to Albertini's long pass to drive the ball in.

A Russian equaliser would have meant sudden-death extra time and only four minutes later Igor Kolyvanov whistled a shot just inches wide of the left-hand post. The Russian coach, Boris Ignatiev, took off the midfielder Igor Yanovsky to bring on a third striker, Igor Simutenkov, on the hour in a bid to find the equaliser, but Italy were quick to cover any danger, keeping their shape and discipline under pressure.

l Alen Boksic sent Croatia to their first World Cup finals yesterday with a 27th-minute goal that secured a 1-1 draw against Ukraine in front of 70,000 at the Olympic stadium in Kiev and earned Croatia a 3-1 aggregate victory in the qualifying play-off.

The Dynamo Kiev striker Andriy Shevchenko gave the home side the lead from a rebound after four minutes, but when Vitali Kosovski turned in a second, apparently squaring the aggregate, it was disallowed for offside. In pouring rain Croatia resisted the early pressure, and clinched a place in the finals when Lazio's Boksic scored with a low right-foot shot from close range.