Pirlo shows he is too good to retire as Chiellini rescues Italy

COMMENT: The veteran impressed in his first Azzurri game since overturning his decision to retire but Antonio Conte's men risked an embarrassing draw at home to Azerbaijan
By Tony Mahoney

Andrea Pirlo impressed on his return to the Italy national team on Friday night, pulling all the strings in midfield, but despite the veteran's influence in the centre of the park, the Azzurri so nearly risked a humiliating draw against Azerbaijan.

The Euro 2016 qualifier in Palermo completed a full circle for the ageless star, who made his Italy debut against the Azerbaijanis way back in 2002. Twelve years and now 113 caps later, the Juventus man is still performing at the very highest level.

Pirlo and his Italy team-mates started slowly in Palermo as their opponents defended deeply and in numbers. But the longer the first half wore on, the more the ex-Milan man began to take control.

After creating a gilt-edged chance which Andrea Ranocchia squandered, Pirlo set up Giorgio Chiellini for the opener on the stroke of half time - curling in a perfectly-flighted corner from the left for the defender to head home.

Pirlo was originally set to retire from international football at the end of the 2014 World Cup, but overturned his decision after his former club coach at Juventus, Antonio Conte, replaced Cesare Prandelli in the Italy dugout.

"The only person who could change my mind was Conte," Pirlo revealed in the pre-match press conference.

"I know there is an important project for these two years, I know him and I am certain that there will be much to enjoy.

Pirlo continued to dictate proceedings in the second period, with Simone Zaza twice going close - once with a stunning bicycle kick. But after the 2006 World Cup winner was substituted on 73 minutes, Italy almost suffered a meltdown. Just minutes later, the away side incredibly grabbed an equaliser as Chiellini bundled the ball into his own net.

That goal only served to demonstrate just how influential Pirlo still is, as Italy lost their rythym and Azerbaijan edged towards what would have been the greatest result in their footballing history.

But to Conte and Italy's credit, they rallied after the visitors restored parity. Sebastian Giovinco was summoned from the bench and played a decisive cameo role. The 'Atomic Ant' crossed from the right for Chiellini to power Italy back in front with just nine mintes remaining. Unbelievably, it was Chiellini's third goal of the night - the second at the right end.

Giovinco later hit the bar as Italy maintained their 100 per cent start to Euro 2016 qualifying, but after impressing in the first two matches of Conte's reign in the 2-0 victories over Netherlands and Norway - this was something of a wake-up call for the Azzurri.

Pirlo is such a unique and timeless player that, even at the age of 37, he could still prove to be very useful at the Euro 2016 finals. But with or without the midfielder, Italy should not be scrambling to victory over the 95th ranked team in the world.

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