Pablo Daniel Osvaldo scored a brace, but Italy were chaotic and confused in the 2-2 opening World Cup qualifier in Bulgaria.
Daniele De Rossi also went off with a thigh injury, leaving the team with 10 men for the final 11 minutes.
The Azzurri got to the Euro 2012 Final and began official competition again with their first 2014 World Cup qualifier. They travelled to Sofia with a 3-5-2 system including new strike partners Sebastian Giovinco and Osvaldo, while De Rossi shook off an ankle injury to feature in midfield.
The starting XI included seven Juventus players, but Mario Balotelli was out following eye surgery to correct a recurring problem caused by contact lenses. Federico Balzaretti, Ignazio Abate, Giorgio Chiellini and Davide Astori also pulled out.
Bulgaria had hoped to tempt Dimitar Berbatov out of international retirement, but he rejected the opportunity, so Ivelin Popov was the captain and lone centre-forward. Their line-up could be considered a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 depending on phases of the game.
Although Giovinco-Osvaldo was new at senior level, they have played together in the past for the Under-21 and Olympic sides.
Giovinco’s cross was nodded over by Osvaldo in a looping finish with the goalkeeper off his line, but at the other end Leonardo Bonucci had to rescue Italy with a block after Christian Maggio passed straight to Emil Gagorov.
Popov got to the by-line and his ball with the outside of the boot flashed across the face of goal with nobody ready to tap in.
Vladimir Gadzhev’s long-range effort caused no trouble for Gigi Buffon, but the goalkeeper needed a great save when Ivan Ivanov was at full stretch to redirect a Gargorov free kick, the Juventus hero fingertipping it off the line.
Another set play was cleared to the edge of the box, where Svetoslav Dyakov’s follow-up was charged down.
The pressure was building and Bulgaria took the lead thanks to a long-range right-foot snapshot from Stanislav Manolev which bounced just in front of Buffon. It surprised the goalkeeper, who could only watch it rebound over him.
The tension in Sofia was palpable, as the Azzurri were continually bickering and telling each other off for mistakes.
Italy did get their equaliser with another scrappy goal. It was knocked across for Osvaldo, who made the most of space created by Giovinco to fire in an angled drive from nine yards.
The Azzurri had done precious little so far, but went 2-1 up with a stroke of luck. Giaccherini’s cross found Osvaldo for a header while crouching down, which took a massive deflection off Ivanov to leave Nikolay Mihaylov stranded at the near post. The Roma hitman had never scored a senior goal for Italy before, let alone two.
A wonderful Popov chest and volley on the turn was just over the bar in what would’ve been a stunning goal.
Moments later, a horrible Maggio mistake allowed Popov a free shot from eight yards, but the angled drive flashed across the face of goal to skim the far post by a matter of inches. Napoli winger Maggio had crouched down and let the cross go over his head.
It was nearly an Osvaldo hat-trick on the stroke of half-time, gathering in the D and turning for a fierce shot that stung Mihaylov’s palms.
After the restart Giovinco smashed a powerful finish that Mihaylov beat away with great difficulty. A dangerous Milanov cross very nearly found Manolev in the middle, but the defender did enough to put him off.
Bulgaria went close to an equaliser on 56 minutes, as a scuffed Georgi Milanov shot from outside the box took a slight deflection and Buffon fingertipped it round the post.
Giaccherini needed a crucial interception to stop Manolev gathering a cross when clear on goal. Buffon spilled a Manolev cross from the right and Gargorov just failed to make the most of it.
Alessandro Diamanti was Italy’s first substitution on for Giaccherini, moving to a diamond midfield and four-man defence.
However, Bulgaria drew level straight away. Ilian Micanski got down the right and pulled back for an unmarked Georgi Milanov to blast an angled drive over Buffon under the bar from nine yards. However, replays suggest there might’ve been an offside position in the build-up.
Federico Peluso replaced Angelo Ogbonna, who had not been 100 per cent fit this week. Mattia Destro was the final substitute on for Giovinco.
Micanski turned a free header off target from a Bulgarian corner, then a classic counter-attack created by a Maggio error was salvaged by a great Buffon save at the near post from Manolev.
De Rossi pulled up clutching the back of his thigh on 75 minutes and tried to run it off, especially as Italy had completed their substitutions, but remained on the field practically static.
Destro had the opportunity against the run of play to restore Italy’s lead, but with the goalkeeper well off his line the Roma striker’s weak chip was ineffective.
De Rossi had to give up after a few minutes, as he risked causing a serious thigh strain, so Italy played the final 11 minutes with 10 men. There was also tension in the stands, as groups of Bulgarian supporters from rival Sofia clubs began fighting each other.
Manolev turned over from a corner, but Diamanti set up Destro with a through ball and he fired straight at the goalkeeper’s legs.
Armenia currently lead Group B after their 1-0 victory away to Malta. Click here for the World Cup qualifier standings.
Bulgaria 2-2 Italy
Scorers: Manolev 29 (B), Osvaldo 36, 40 (I), Milanov 66 (B)
Bulgaria: Mihaylov; Y Minev, V Minev, Ivanov, Manolev; Bodurov, Gadzhev (Sarmov 79), Milanov, Dyakov, Gagorov (Micanski 62); Popov (Tonev 81)
Italy: Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Ogbonna (Peluso 68); Giaccherini (Diamanti 64), Marchisio, De Rossi, Pirlo, Maggio; Giovinco (Destro 73), Osvaldo
Ref: Atkinson (ENG)
Think you know your Italian football? Share your knowledge, tips and comments to win cash prizes in OLBG's World Cup tipster competition - £10,000 to be won!