Italy racked up their first 2014 World Cup qualification victory in Modena on Tuesday, stuttering to a 2-0 win over Group B minnows Malta.
Mattia Destro opened the scoring with just over five minutes gone but the Azzurri failed to build on their early advantage and struggled to break down a side ranked 139th in the world.
Federico Peluso’s last-gasp header was scarcely deserved in light of such an insipid display from the Euro 2012 runners-up.
While Italy had looked very vulnerable in their 2-2 draw with Bulgaria last time out, that they performed so poorly against Malta was surprising given they could not have hoped for a better start.
Less than six minutes had elapsed when Claudio Marchisio split the Malta defence with a measured ball from the middle of the park that Destro allowed to drift across him before coolly prodding past Andrew Hogg in the Malta goal.
With the hosts having made such an early breakthrough, a rout looked a distinct possibility and Cesare Prandelli’s side quickly set about trying to secure a two-goal cushion.
Pablo Osvaldo threatened twice either side of a well-struck Alessandro Diamanti free-kick that Hogg did well to turn over the bar, the Roma striker first heading wide from a corner before then being denied by a well-timed challenge from Luke Dimech.
Italy soon ran out of ideas and Malta began to threaten on the counter as a half which had begun so brightly quickly fizzled out.
Prandelli responded to his side’s lacklustre offensive display by replacing the ineffective Diamanti with Lorenzo Insigne, who injected some excitement into the game.
The Napoli forward’s quick feet and direct running caused the Maltese defence trouble and it was from an Insigne pass that fellow substitute Giampaolo Pazzini should have doubled Italy’s advantage.
The in-form AC Milan striker could only side-foot the ball wide from the edge of the six-yard area.
Pazzini threatened twice more before Italy finally grabbed a second right at the death, with Peluso’s near-post header from an Andrea Pirlo corner somehow finding its way past Hogg.
That goal, though, could not paper over the cracks that have been evident in Italy’s opening two games in Group B.