Mario Balotelli bagged a brace as Italy earned a 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory in Malta, but Gigi Buffon had to save a penalty.
The Azzurri are comfortably top of Group B with 13 points from five games, followed by Bulgaria on 10 from six. Click here for the Italy section with fixtures and standings.
Cesare Prandelli picked a team entirely made up of Milan and Juventus players, as Emanuele Giaccherini was preferred to Alessio Cerci in a 4-3-1-2 system and Claudio Marchisio returned after missing the 2-2 friendly with Brazil due to tonsillitis. Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo sat out bans.
The Azzurri had previously won all five meetings with Malta, but never scored more than two goals in each of their two trips here.
Buffon had to come tearing out of the box to clear from Michael Mifsud, but the referee pointed to the spot when Stephan El Shaarawy burst into the area and was patently tripped by Luke Dimech. His Milan teammate Balotelli stepped up and coolly converted, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
El Shaarawy went for goal himself soon after with a wonderful curler that whistled just wide of the far top corner.
Balotelli knocked down a cross for El Shaarawy to bundle over the line, but the ex-Manchester City player was already offside.
However, Malta earned a penalty when Marchisio lost the ball in midfield and Andre Schembri ran clear, so Buffon went to smother at his feet and knocked the player over. However, Buffon made up for his error by parrying the Mifsud spot-kick.
It was a fine way to celebrate his 126th Italy cap, matching Paolo Maldini and now second in the history books behind Fabio Cannavaro on 136.
Moments later, Mifsud tried to get his name on the scoresheet after all when he skipped past Leonardo Bonucci, but his long-range snapshot dipped over Buffon and on to the crossbar.
El Shaarawy’s cross-field pass went across Balotelli and found Riccardo Montolivo on the far side of the area, sprinting in with a lob on to the roof of the net.
Balotelli drilled wide from outside the box, while Buffon had to palm a Clayton Failla free kick round the base of the near post. Super Mario had an angry reaction when he had his heels clipped by Dimech.
Some lovely work between El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio down the left earned a free kick outside the D, but Andrea Pirlo’s effort hit the wall.
Montolivo blasted just over the bar from a tight angle and a long-range Balotelli free kick sailed over.
Italy doubled their lead before half-time thanks to a wonderful goal. De Sciglio ran on to a Leonardo Bonucci pass down the left and kept it in play when skipping past a defender, pulling back from the by-line for Balotelli to side-foot into the far bottom corner from seven yards. That was Super Mario’s eighth goal in the Italy jersey, making him the top scorer during the Prandelli era, as Antonio Cassano is still on seven.
After the restart an Alexander Muscat angled drive flashed across the face of goal, but there was a great move when Balotelli sent Ignazio Abate running down the right and he rolled across for Emanuele Giaccherini, but Justin Haber did enough to keep the Juventus man out.
Malta had more penalty appeals, but Marchisio appeared to get the ball off Mifsud. Schembri got away from Montolivo in midfield and surged forward, as eventually Mifsud’s shot was charged down for a corner.
Haber smothered at El Shaarawy’s feet and substitute Antonio Candreva’s pull-back for Balotelli was crucially intercepted. Candreva blasted over from distance and Alberto Gilardino’s glancing header whistled wide, but the game was essentially under control for the entire second half.
Malta 0-2 Italy
Scorers: Balotelli pen 8, 45 (I)
Malta: Haber; Camilleri, Dimech, Caruana, Failla (Cohen 82); Herrera, Sciberras, A Muscat, Briffa; Schembri; Mifsud (Vella 87)
Italy: Buffon; Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, De Sciglio; Marchisio, Pirlo, Montolivo; Giaccherini (Candreva 60); Balotelli (Gilardino 85), El Shaarawy (Cerci 75)
Ref: Gozubuyuk (NED)
Saved penalty: Mifsud 16 (M)