Mario Balotelli scored twice as Italy moved three points clear at the top of World Cup qualifying Group B with a 2-0 win over Malta.
The enigmatic forward opened the scoring from the spot seven minutes in after AC Milan team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy had been sent tumbling in the area at Ta’ Qali National Stadium on Tuesday.
Malta could have responded in kind but Michael Mifsud saw his penalty well-saved by Gianluigi Buffon, who had felled Andre Schembri in the area.
It proved a costly miss as Balotelli struck again right on the stroke of half-time to break the hosts’ game resistance.
Malta had gone into the game without a home win in a competitive international for seven years, but for long stretches of a low-quality encounter they looked in no way inferior to a side positioned 142 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
But it was Italy who opened the scoring, Balotelli slotting home from the spot in characteristically cool fashion after Luke Dimech had clumsily upended El Shaarawy just inside the area.
The AC Milan duo nearly combined for a second goal soon after, El Shaarawy whipping a shot just wide after being put into space by the most sumptuous back-heeled lay-off from Balotelli.
Malta should have levelled matters 16 minutes in when Buffon took Schembri down as the attacker tried to round the Juventus shot-stopper.
The Italy captain avoided a red card as Schembri had been going away from the goal, and that proved crucial, with Buffon making amends for his error by parrying Mifsud’s well-struck but poorly directed spot-kick away to safety.
While Malta’s record goalscorer only had himself to blame for failing to convert from the spot, he was unfortunate to see a thunderous long-range effort crash against the crossbar with Buffon beaten.
Riccardo Montolivo then went close for Italy, lofting the ball onto the roof of the net after taking an El Shaarawy cross in his stride.
The hosts were rocked by the concession of a second goal right on the stroke of half-time that underlined the clear gulf in class in terms of finishing.
Leonardo Bonucci played a sublime ball over the top that Mattia De Sciglio controlled before laying off for the supporting Balotelli, who calmly placed his effort past Justin Haber and into the far right corner.
Malta continued to cause Italy problems at the back after the restart, but they failed to score the goal that their endeavour deserved.
Italy looked like scoring every time they strung a couple of passes together and Emanuele Giaccherini should have put the result beyond all doubt just before the hour after being picked out in the area by Ignazio Abate, but the Juventus man saw his stabbed effort well-saved by Haber.
Italy ultimately cruised to a victory that affords them some breathing space at the top of Group B after Bulgaria’s 1-1 draw with Denmark in Copenhagen earlier in the day.
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