Defending champion Italy survived conceding the quickest goal in European Championships history to begin its campaign with a crucial 2-1 victory over spirited underdog Albania.

Nicolo Barella struck what turned out to be the winning goal after just 16 minutes with a fierce strike from the edge of the area, and the Azzurri joined Spain as the clear leaders of Group B.

Nicolò Barella’s strike in 16′ gives Italy a 2-1 lead over Albania | UEFA Euro 2024

Barella made no mistake when the ball fell to him in space and eased Italian nerves after what had been a tempestuous start to the game at Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund.

Nedim Bajrami incredibly scored the opener just 23 seconds into the game, capitalizing on an ill-placed throw-in to take a touch and then smash the ball past goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

But Italy responded with spirit and some poor marking allowed Alessandro Bastoni a free header from close range, with the big defender making no mistake in the 11th minute.

Having taken the lead, Italy found its composure, and was mostly in control during the second half, however, Donnarumma was forced into a critical save in injury time to clinch a vital three points.

Luciano Spalletti’s will now take on Spain in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday, a contest that may decide to outcome of the pool that has become known as Euro 2024’s version of the Group of Death.

Albania, with an incredible following that saw its supporters occupy the vast majority of the seats on Saturday, will try to revive its campaign against Croatia in Hamburg the previous afternoon.

For Italy, Barella looks set to continue to be a crucial part of its success, his midfield role vital in virtually all aspects of Spalletti’s system.

Italy might have received little attention leading into Euro 2024, but they are very much part of it now, and will not give up their title without a fight.

Italy vs. Albania Highlights | UEFA Euro 2024

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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