Graziano Pellè scored on his senior Italy debut, scraping a 1-0 win over 10-man Malta with Leonardo Bonucci also sent off.
Antonio Conte aimed to keep his 100 per cent Azzurri record intact, but confidence was shaken slightly by Friday’s slender 2-1 win over Azerbaijan. Andrea Pirlo, Simone Zaza and the injured Andrea Ranocchia left the starting XI, making way for Marco Verratti, Manuel Pasqual, Antonio Candreva and Southampton striker Graziano Pellè getting his senior Italy debut. Malta Coach Pietro Ghedin was in the Italy staff under Cesare Maldini, Dino Zoff and Giovanni Trapattoni.
Gigi Buffon made history this evening, as his 48th appearance in European Championships – including qualifiers – was a new all-time record.
Ciro Immobile drilled wide in the opening minute, but Malta went closer when Clayton Failla pounced on a poor clearance on the edge of the box for his shot deflected just past the far post.
Italy finally woke up after 17 minutes when Pellè’s header from a Pasqual cross thumped the crossbar, then moments later Giorgio Chiellini nodded a Pasqual corner on to the far post. The Juventus defender had scored twice for the Azzurri – plus an own goal – against Azerbaijan.
It was indeed Pellè who scored on his senior Italy debut, as Leonardo Bonucci’s header was parried on another Pasqual corner and the Southampton striker was quickest to react on the rebound from point-blank range. It was his sixth goal in the last seven games between club and country.
Malta’s night went from bad to worse, as star forward Michael Mifsud was harshly shown a straight red card for his clumsy but not malicious studs-up challenge on Alessandro Florenzi’s ankle. It looked to be a very excessive decision from the Romanian referee, though not dissimilar to the incident that saw Claudio Marchisio sent off against Uruguay in the World Cup.
Despite facing 10 men, the Azzurri still struggled to create chances and seemed sluggish. Straight after the restart, Candreva’s cross-shot swerved to thump the crossbar, while Immobile had timid penalty appeals when Ryan Camilleri clipped his heel.
The Borussia Dortmund striker aimed a weak header straight at the goalkeeper and substitute Sebastian Giovinco’s shot was deflected for a corner.
Italy also went down to 10 men, as Bonucci tussled with Andre Schembri on the counter and the referee considered it to be a clear goal-scoring opportunity. This too was harsh, as they were a good 30 yards from goal and Darmian was catching up. That also means Bonucci will be suspended for the top of the group showdown with Croatia.
Failla saw the resulting free kick strike a hand in the wall – outside the box – and Gigi Buffon controlled comfortably. Giovinco stung the goalkeeper’s gloves and with a change of pace burst past his marker with an angled drive that thumped the far post, but other than that the final 20 minutes were focused on keeping sterile possession.
Malta 0-1 Italy
Scorers: Pellè 24 (I)
Malta: Hogg; Z Muscat, Agius, R Camilleri; Mintoff (Baldacchino 73), P Fenech, R Muscat, Briffa, Failla (Bezzina 93); Schembri (Cohen 86); Mifsud
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Florenzi (Aquilani 59), Verratti, Marchisio, Pasqual; Pellè (Ogbonna 75), Immobile (Giovinco 65)
Ref: Hategan (ROM)
Sent off: Mifsud 28 (M), Bonucci 73 (I)