Alberto Gilardino’s header and a series of stunning Gianluigi Buffon saves saw Italy beat Bulgaria 1-0 and practically qualify for the World Cup.
Lorenzo Insigne was given his first senior Italy start, picked ahead of Emanuele Giaccherini with Gilardino stepping in, as Mario Balotelli, Dani Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo were suspended. It was also Thiago Motta’s first appearance since the Euro 2012 Final. Bulgaria had Georgi Milanov banned, but Nikolay Bodurov was able to shake off an injury.
Italy were four points ahead of second-placed Bulgaria in World Cup qualifying, but both teams were still unbeaten. Gilardino forced the first save after 32 seconds at the Stadio Barbera in Palermo, but Bulgaria’s notoriously solid defence made it more difficult from then on.
Stanislav Manolev and Andrea Pirlo had efforts off target from distance, though on 20 minutes Gigi Buffon spilled an Alexandar Tonev snapshot and was fortunate nobody could get on the end of the loose ball. Daniele De Rossi also fired wide with the outside of his boot from the D after a well-worked team move. Insigne finally tested Nikolay Mihaylov with a sudden strike that was punched round the base of the near post. Leonardo Bonucci only grazed his forehead on a Pirlo free kick across the face of goal, while De Rossi’s attempted volley from an Ignazio Abate cross was charged down, as was Thiago Motta’s effort from a corner.
Gilardino broke the deadlock before half-time with a trademark glancing header between two defenders on a chipped Candreva cross from the left. Gila performed his traditional violin celebration and then ran to the bench to hug his former Bologna teammate Alessandro Diamanti. This was Gilardino’s 19th Azzurri goal, the first since a 4-0 win over San Marino on May 31.
Moments later Luca Antonelli also got down that flank and his cross for Gilardino was crucially fingertipped away by Mihaylov. A Pirlo free kick was floated inches over the head of De Rossi at the back post.
Straight after the restart Gilardino ran on to a Thiago Motta through ball only to scuff his finish into Mihaylov’s arms. Moments later Buffon needed an absolutely stunning save from point-blank range, palming Ivelin Popov’s sliding deflection off the line from a smart Tonev cross.
Insigne fired over from the edge of the box on a corner, but Luca Antonelli hurt his ankle during a tackle and was off the field when Bulgaria had a great chance to score. A corner was not cleared effectively, Buffon needed another great save on Dimitar Rangelov’s close-range header and as the move continued Thiago Motta charged down Georgi Iliev’s shot.
Davide Astori eventually replaced Antonelli, moving Giorgio Chiellini to left-back. Todor Nedelev’s curler rolled just wide of the far post and Mihaylov palmed away a dipping Pirlo free kick. Gilardino almost got his second goal of the night on 73 minutes when he pounced on a dreadful backpass and prodded it past Mihaylov, but Bodurov scrambled back for a goalline clearance.
Vladimir Gadzhev drilled wide from a corner and Abate was stretchered off for Christian Maggio with what appeared to be a groin strain. The Azzurri clung on for the slender victory under late pressure, as even the goalkeeper went up for the last corners and Minev nodded on to the side-netting, and go seven points clear at the top of Group B.
Italy 1-0 Bulgaria
Scorers: Gilardino 37 (I)
Italy: Buffon; Abate (Maggio 80), Bonucci, Chiellini, Antonelli (Astori 62); Thiago Motta, Pirlo, De Rossi; Candreva, Insigne (Giaccherini 63); Gilardino
Bulgaria: Mihaylov; Y Minev, Bodurov, Ivanov, V Minev; Dyakov (Delev 75); Manolev, G Iliev (Manolev 55), Gadzhev, Popov; Tonev (Rangelov 60)
Ref: Velasco Carballo (SPA)