Alessandro Del Piero repaid the faith of Italy coach Dino Zoff on Monday, scoring a superb winner as his team beat Sweden 2-1 to complete a hat-trick of wins in Group B at Euro 2000.
Italy had already qualified for the quarterfinals, but Del Piero's strike for what was a reserve side kept up Italy's 100 percent record after wins over Turkey and Belgium, and also dumped the Swedes out of the competition.
Inter Milan midfielder Luigi Di Biagio opened the scoring with a header six minutes from the break, but dread locked striker Henrik Larsson replied for Sweden with a well-taken equalizer in the 77th minute.
Del Piero struck in the 88th minute, racing away on the break before crashing an unstoppable shot past Swedish 'keeper Magnus Hedman into the roof of the net.
Zoff made eight changes to the 11 who beat Belgium - retaining only goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, skipper Paolo Maldini and fellow defender Mark Iuliano.
Maldini meanwhile picked up a left knee injury and had to leave shortly before half-time. Zoff said later that it shouldn't be anything serious.
The display was not up to their earlier mark, but Italy stuck to their successful formula at Euro 2000 by soaking up pressure and then producing two clinical finishes to kill off the tie at the Philips Stadion.
However, Zoff was critical of both, the performance and his team's attitude, saying, "we had a few breaks that went our way and if we hadn't won, Sweden would undoubtedly have deserved a bit more than they got.
"I think we suffered more than we should have done," he said. "We didn't start out with the necessary determination for matches at this level."
After a tentative start, Patrik Ljungberg very nearly set up a goal in the 10th minute, curling over a corner for a Johan Mjallby header that beat Italy 'keeper Francesco Toldo but was headed off the line by Angelo Di Livio.
Sweden turned the pressure as Italy's makeshift defense started to show signs of falling apart and in the 14th minute Ljungberg managed the miss of the tournament.
Larsson flicked the ball through and, after evading Paulo Negro's tackle, the Arsenal midfielder regained his balance but still hooked the ball wide of the far post from five meters out - with Toldo at his mercy.
Four minutes later it was Italy's turn. Del Piero set Vincenzo Montella free on the break and the AS Roma striker neatly dribbled past defender Joachim Bjorkland but failed to beat Hedman with his shot.
Magnus Svensson fared no better in the 25th minute as he ran on to a loose ball from a dozen meters out but saw his shot blocked by Toldo.
And two minutes later, Montella lobbed the ball over the bar from inside the six-meter box after working a neat one-two with Del Piero.
Substitute Kennet Andersson set up the equalizer, getting the better of two Italian defenders to prod on a through-ball for Larsson, who sprinted into space, rounded Toldo and steered his shot into an empty net.
Sweden went close twice within the next five minutes - with a Larsson header and Kennet Andersson's rising shot on the bounce inside the Italian area, but a draw looked on the cards before the late winning goal is scored by Del Piero in the 88th minute.
Del Piero should really have scored again in injury-time - missing an open goal after volleying Montella's cross over the bar from point-blank range – (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)