Mattia Destro and Federico Peluso netted their first Italy goals and Lorenzo Insigne made a thrilling debut, but the Azzurri only managed a 2-0 win over Malta.
Elsewhere in World Cup qualifying Group B, Bulgaria beat Armenia 1-0, putting them on four points along with Italy.
The Azzurri began their 2014 qualifying campaign with a 2-2 draw away to Bulgaria, but the 3-5-2 system disappointed and was shelved in favour of a diamond midfield at the Stadio Braglia in Modena.
An all-Roma attack of Destro and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo led the way with support from Alessandro Diamanti, while Federico Peluso, Mattia Cassani and Antonio Nocerino stepped in for Christian Maggio, Emanuele Giaccherini and the injured Daniele De Rossi.
These sides had met four times and Italy won all of them, scoring 15 goals and conceding two. This game was hosted by Modena as a nod to the area affected by a devastating earthquake.
It took just five minutes for Destro to score his debut senior Italy goal, running on to a long Claudio Marchisio ball over the top and anticipating the goalkeeper by poking at full stretch from 10 yards.
Cassani was brought down on the outside edge of the box by Edward Herrera and the resulting Diamanti curler of a free kick forced Andrew Hogg to palm it out from under the bar.
Another Marchisio ball from midfield allowed Osvaldo to wrestle off two defenders and the finish was deflected inches past the near post.
Osvaldo’s strike was charged down, while Michael Mifsud had Malta’s first chance on 29 minutes when he spotted Gigi Buffon well off his line and attempted a lob from midfield. Roderick Briffa went considerably closer with a snapshot from outside the box that Buffon fingertipped over the bar.
Malta were blocking up spaces and man-marking Andrea Pirlo, reducing Italy to long-range efforts from Leonardo Bonucci and Pirlo. The fans in Modena were also frustrated and began to jeer towards half-time. Destro twice tried to combine with Roma teammate Osvaldo, but both times Andre Agius read it well.
Lorenzo Insigne was thrown on at half-time for Diamanti, switching to a 4-3-3 with strikers who have all worked with Zdenek Zeman whether at Roma or Pescara. Napoli striker Insigne was making his senior Azzurri debut and immediately got the crowd going by skipping past Agius down the left, though his cross for Destro was intercepted.
Hogg punched a Nocerino pass off Osvaldo’s foot, then bravely flung himself at Destro’s legs to stop a tap-in from three yards on Nocerino’s pass, getting an accidental kick in the head.
This time Insigne skipped past two down the left, but eventually ran into the goalkeeper. Osvaldo lost possession in midfield and was fortunate Luke Dimech fired over on the counter-attack.
A masterclass of Pirlo dummies in the box drove the Maltese defence dizzy, but it couldn’t be finished off as Nocerino’s volley was charged down. Destro held off two defenders and managed to get the ball back from the by-line, but no teammates were there to tap in from six yards.
Marchisio blasted just over the bar and Giampaolo Pazzini replaced Osvaldo, while another Destro effort was charged down in the area. Insigne threaded through for Pazzini, but the Milan striker flicked it wide of the near post.
Sebastian Giovinco was the final substitute for Destro. Pazzini turned a free header well wide from a corner, then failed to make the most of a goalkeeping error. Andrea Barzagli prodded off target after Pazzini's header into the ground, as the Milan hitman again jumped very high without getting the necessary accuracy into his finish.
In stoppages Pazzini flicked the ball over the goalkeeper, but lost control of it. However, from that corner Italy finally got a second goal, as Federico Peluso netted his debut strike on his third cap. It was a glancing header from Pirlo's corner that ricocheted off the goalkeeper and teammate Cohen on the line.
Italy 2-0 Malta
Scorers: Destro 5 (I), Peluso 92 (I)
Italy: Buffon; Cassani, Barzagli, Bonucci, Peluso; Nocerino, Pirlo, Marchisio; Diamanti (Insigne 46); Osvaldo (Pazzini 69), Destro (Giovinco 82)
Malta: Hogg; Borg, Dimech, A Agius, Muscat (Camilleri 85); Herrera, Sciberras, Briffa, Bogdanovic (Cohen 69); Schembri; Mifsud
Ref: Manukka (FIN)
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