Graziano Pelle spared Italy’s blushes as the Southampton striker earned an unconvincing 1-0 Euro 2016 qualifying win over Malta on Thursday to take full advantage of Croatia’s slip-up.
Azerbaijan held Group H leaders Croatia to a 0-0 draw earlier in the day and, although for a while Malta looked destined to pull off a similar shock in Florence, Pelle bundled the ball home in the second half to see Italy go level at the top of the table.
Despite dominating from start to finish, Italy were forced to endure a great deal of frustration, with several first-half chances coming to nothing in a wasteful display.
Seemingly urged on by some choice half-time words courtesy from Antonio Conte, Italy’s link-up play in the final third improved, though their luck did not and they looked on as Manolo Gabbiadini struck the crossbar from distance just before the hour mark.
Italy’s persistence did pay off eventually, though, as Pelle managed to get himself on the end of Antonio Candreva’s cross with just over 20 minutes to go, effectively dashing the hopes of the visitors.
The home side could have added to the score during the final stages, but ultimately their missed chances did not matter as Malta failed to produce much of a response, allowing Italy to end a run of three consecutive qualifying draws.
Italy were on the front foot right from the start and went close to breaking the deadlock after just three minutes, as Andrea Pirlo saw his free-kick fly just over.
But for all their domination and monopolisation of the ball, Italy found great difficulty breaking down Malta’s packed defence, with errant crosses and forward passes regularly drawing groans of frustration from the crowd.
When Italy did eventually create their next chance in the 25th minute, it somewhat unsurprisingly came courtesy of a Pirlo set-piece, as the New York City midfielder’s corner was nodded over by Graziano Pelle.
And Malta almost capitalised on that let-off just a few moments later, but Alfred Effiong’s caressed effort after skilfully evading Leonardo Bonucci agonisingly missed the bottom-right corner.
Malta’s defensive concentration began to waiver in the final 10 minutes of the half, but Italy failed to take advantage, as Eder dragged a 20-yard effort just past the post with 39 minutes on the clock, before Pelle suffered the same fate from close range soon after.
Proceedings followed a familiar pattern at the start of the second half and a crucial Andrei Agius block denied Matteo Darmian after the right-back was fed by Pirlo’s disguised free-kick.
Gabbiadini went close for Italy with 59 minutes played as the Napoli forward’s ferocious left-footed effort crashed against the crossbar and bounced down kindly for Malta.
But finally, with 21 minutes to go, Malta’s resistance broke, as goalkeeper Andrew Hogg failed to deal with Candreva’s cross and Pelle was able to find the net from close range.
Eder should have put the result beyond all doubt when firing into the side-netting from close range with eight minutes left, but it mattered not and Italy clinched victory to leave them on the brink of qualification.