A goal by Graziano Pellè once again made the whole difference as Italy defeated Malta 1-0 in a match from Group H of the European Qualifiers at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Firenze on Thursday.
The score was a repeat of last October’s clash at Ta’ Qali when the Southampton striker had also handed Italy the three points on his debut. Italy now join Croatia on top of the group after the latter were held in a goalless draw by Azerbaijan. Croatia’s total is however subject to pending disciplinary proceedings which could mean the loss of a point.
Malta coach Pietro Ghedin awarded Andrew Hogg, Steve Borg and Andre Schembri a place in the starting line-up replacing Justin Haber, Ryan Camilleri and Michael Mifsud who started on the bench. In fact, Hogg started in goal with Steve Borg, Andrei Agius and Zach Muscat as the three central defenders with Alex Muscat and Clayton Failla on the flank. The usual Roderick Briffa, Rowen Muscat and Paul Fenech were employed in midfield with Schembri supporting Alfred Effiong in attack.
Antonio Conte, on the other hand, handed a surprise place in the starting line-up to Napoli striker Manolo Gabbiadini as he made no less than six changes from the team which held Croatia in a 1-1 draw away from home.
As expected the hosts went out in search of an early goal but found the Maltese defence very cautious. Italy had the first attempt at goal on the 3rd minute when an Andrea Pirlo freekick from the left was deflected into a corner by Effiong. A Graziano Pellè effort from the edge of the area was deflected by a defender into another corner on the 14th. Seven minutes later, another freekick by Pirlo was parried in two attempts by the Malta custodian. Pellè then headed high off a corner by Pirlo from the left on 23 minutes.
On the other side of the pitch, Chiellini controlled badly a Roderick Briffa effort with Bonucci clearing the ball into a corner on 27 minutes. Two minutes later, Alfred Effiong concluded a good move on the left flank with a low shot which ended just wide.
On the 36th, Hogg came to the rescue, blocking into a corner an Andrea Bertolacci effort deflected by Steve Borg. Sampdoria striker Éder then concluded a good run with a low shot which scraped past the post three minutes later.
In added time, Alfred Effiong sped on the right flank, beating Chiellini on the run but then lost possession when trying to round Bonucci.
The hosts continued to hold the initiative with the boys in red trying their best to keep their opponents at bay.
Seven minutes in the second half, Pirlo released the unmarked Darmian on the right from a freekick but Agius blocked his attempt. An assist by Darmian from the right caught the Maltese defence unprepared but Hogg managed to anticipate substitute Parolo. Manolo Gabbiadini was then unlucky not to put Italy ahead on the 59th, when served by Verratti, as the ball hit the crossbar with Hogg beaten.
Italy finally managed to break the deadlock on 69 minutes when off a cross from the right by Candreva, Graziano Pellè chested the ball down past Hogg, probably handling it in the process with the ball ending at the back of the net.
Finally Marco Parolo’s powerful drive from the left was turned into a corner by Hogg following a slight deflection by a defender on 79 minutes.
ITALY Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Matteo Darmian, Andrea Bertolucci (55′ Marco Parolo), Marco Verratti (77′ Roberto Soriano), Eder, Leonardo Bonucci, Graziano Pellè, Andrea Pirlo, Manolo Gabbiadini (64′ Antonio Candreva), Manuel Pasqual.
MALTA Andrew Hogg, Alex Muscat, Andrei Agius, Paul Fenech, Clayton Failla, Roderick Briffa (90+1′ Gareth Sciberras), Rowen Muscat, Andre Schembri (73′ Bjorn Kristensen), Steve Borg, Alfred Effiong (90+3′ Michael Mifsud), Zach Muscat.
Referee: Ivan Kruzliak (SVK)
Assistant Referees: Tomas Somolani, Tomas Mokos (SVK)
Additional Assistant Referees: Vladimir Vnuk, Mario Vlk (SVK)
Fourth Official: Ondrej Brendza (SVK)
Yellow Cards: Fenech, Effiong, Candreva