Graziano Pellè bundled over the line and Manolo Gabbiadini hit the bar, as Italy squeezed past Malta 1-0 to top their Euro 2016 group.
The Azzurri were looking for their first victory of 2015, but above all a win put them top of Group H after Croatia’s 0-0 draw away to Azerbaijan. Elsewhere, Norway won 1-0 in Bulgaria.
Manolo Gabbiadini surprisingly got his first Italy start, while Marco Verratti and Andrea Pirlo formed a rare midfield partnership. Pirlo made history as the first MLS player to feature for the Nazionale, having joined New York City FC this summer.
Pirlo’s free kick and a Graziano Pellè effort were deflected over, as Malta rarely strayed out of their own half, though Gigi Buffon did smother a long-range Rowen Muscat strike.
Pellè pulled back from the by-line for Eder, but Andrew Hogg intercepted one-handed, then the Southampton striker nodded over from a corner earned by Verratti’s deflected attempt.
Pirlo was heard shouting to Verratti to move at least 11 metres in front of him. There was a scare when Giorgio Chiellini hit a fresh-air clearance, forcing Leo Bonucci to give away a corner, from which Clayton Failla blasted over.
Malta had the best chance of the game so far on 29 minutes, as Alfred Effiong went on the counter, took on Bonucci and his angled drive skimmed the far post.
Hogg palmed away a deflected Andrea Bertolacci snapshot, while Eder showed a change of pace to burst through the middle and his finish was just wide of the target.
A cheeky dead ball routine saw Pirlo roll in for Matteo Darmian’s cross, then Manuel Pasqual had a shot charged down. Marco Parolo came off the bench and almost scored straight away, Hogg fingertipping a Darmian low ball off his foot, then Zach Muscat put in a risky but decisive tackle as Pellè was getting the shot away in the box.
Gabbiadini made little impact until the 59th minute, when his stunning left-foot curler smacked against the crossbar at the far top corner of the frame.
Pellè also sprung the offside trap only to fire into the side-netting. The pressure was building and eventually Pellè bundled an Antonio Candreva cross over the line from point-blank range with his chest. The Southampton striker had also scored last time these sides met, which was his Italy debut. There were complaints, as his arm also made contact, but it was flush across his chest at the time.
Candreva almost set up another for Eder, but the Sampdoria man’s back-heel flick was blocked at the near post, while Hogg flew to palm away a Parolo strike.
Italy 1-0 Malta
Scorers: Pellè 69 (I)
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, Pasqual; Verratti (Soriano 78), Pirlo, Bertolacci (Parolo 55); Gabbiadini (Candreva 64), Pellè, Eder
Malta: Hogg; A Muscat, S Borg, Z Muscat, Agius, Failla; R Muscat, P Fenech, Briffa (Sciberras 91); Effiong (Mifsud 92); Schembri (Kristensen 73)
Ref: Kruzliak (SVK)