Italy coach Antonio Conte urged his players not to take their opposition for granted ahead of the visit of Bulgaria in UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying.
Conte’s charges scraped a narrow 1-0 victory over Malta to end a run of three consecutive draws in Group H, and they sit one point clear of second-placed Croatia in the automatic spots.
Bulgaria’s hopes of qualifying are remote – they are five points behind Norway in third, the play-off spot – but Conte warned against complacency after bottom side Malta proved a stern test for his side.
“The table says that we are now on top and that our group is very balanced,” said Conte, after the win over Malta.
“There are no bad teams at all. Football is growing in every country. Croatia couldn’t go beyond a stalemate against Azerbaijan.”
He added: “We are now back on top. We need to recover, we need to understand who is fit and proper for the upcoming game against Bulgaria.
“We hope we can play well and win against them, but we are fully aware that it’s difficult. If we don’t know how difficult it is, it means that what we say before the game is not worth being remembered after the game.”
Conte’s words were echoed by veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who pointed to Italy’s struggles against supposedly weaker European sides in the past.
“We cannot afford to underestimate our opponents anymore, because lately they have been improving a lot and don’t concede bucketfulls of goals nowadays,” said Buffon.
“On top of that, we have traditionally always struggled in games like this against so-called minnows. We are gambling with qualification, so we can’t get it wrong.”
He added: “We will try to continue our journey trying to always be convincing in terms of result, effort and performance.”
Juventus midfielder Stefano Sturaro is suspended for the visit of Bulgaria, and Conte will give a late fitness test to Claudio Marchisio.
The game will be played at Palermo’s Stadio Renzo Barbera, and Palermo midfielder Ivaylo Chochev will feature for the visitors.
Bulgaria’s previous visit to the venue ended in a 1-0 defeat to the Italians in a World Cup qualifier in September 2013.