Italy went top of Euro 2016 qualifying Group H as Daniele De Rossi’s penalty gave Antonio Conte’s side a 1-0 win over Bulgaria in a game that saw both sides finish with 10 men.
The Euro 2012 finalists knew victory in Palermo would take them to the summit of the group following Norway’s 2-0 victory against Croatia earlier on Sunday.
And Italy duly dominated from the start, needing just six minutes to open the scoring through De Rossi’s twice-taken penalty.
Only the efforts of Bulgaria goalkeeper Bozhidar Mitrev prevented Italy from adding to their lead, but Conte will be without goalscorer De Rossi for their next qualifier in Azerbaijan after his second-half dismissal.
De Rossi and Bulgaria forward Ilian Mitsanski were each shown red cards for their respective roles in a confrontation 10 minutes into the second half.
Despite that incident and an improved second-half showing from Bulgaria, Italy stood firm to go two points clear at the top. By contrast, Ivaylo Petev’s men have no chance of qualifying.
Italy went close to taking the lead in the first minute as Graziano Pelle was denied at the far post by a fine save by Bozhidar Mitrev, with Stephan El Shaarawy turning the rebound acrobatically over the crossbar.
But they were gifted the opening goal three minutes later when Antonio Candreva was clipped in the area by Veselin Minev. De Rossi coolly slotted away the subsequent spot-kick, only for referee Sergey Karasev to instruct the midfielder to take it again after players encroached into the area.
The drama did not faze the Roma stalwart, however, as De Rossi went the same way to beat the valiant dive of Mitrev.
Conte’s men were almost caught cold in the 18th minute when Mitsanski burst through the heart of the Italy defence, only for his low effort to be turned round the left-hand post by Gianluigi Buffon.
The impressive Pelle headed over from a Marco Verratti free-kick and the Southampton striker was heavily involved again when Mitrev prevented Bulgaria from falling further behind by keeping out Mattia De Sciglio’s half-volley.
Marco Parolo went close with deflected efforts either side of half-time, before De Rossi and Mitsanski were given their marching orders.
De Rossi appeared to kick out at Mitsanski for an innocuous but cynical foul and Karasev had no hesitation in brandishing the red card, which he then showed to Mitsanski, who had flung himself to the floor following the Italy man’s reaction.
Todor Nedelev then curled narrowly over for Bulgaria and Mitrev produced a fine save to deny El Shaarawy as the two teams took advantage of the extra space on the Stadio Renzo Barbera pitch.
Bulgaria pressed more in the closing stages, but could not find a way through a stout Italy defence, the hosts holding on to take another step towards a place at the finals in France.