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World Cup qualifying preview: Malta v Italy

Italy are in prime position to consolidate their buffer at the top of their World Cup qualifying group, when they take on strugglers Malta.

Cesare Prandelli’s men lead Group B of UEFA qualifying by one point from Bulgaria, but have a game in hand on the eastern European nation.

Their fixture with Malta at Ta’Qali National Stadium on Tuesday looks academic for the visitors, especially given the Bulgarians trounced the minnows 6-0 on Friday.

The Italians, meanwhile, warmed up for the Brazil 2014 qualifier with a come-from-behind 2-2 draw with next year’s hosts.

Italy scored twice in three minutes to arrest a deficit against the South Americans, although they could not find what would have been a drought-breaking winner – they have not beaten Brazil since 1982.

The 2006 World Cup winners are flying in qualifying, with three wins and a draw from their four outings – including a 2-0 triumph over Pietro Ghedin’s men in September.

Malta have lived in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours for some time, having lost all five of their meetings to date.

Sure to be in the spotlight is AC Milan forward Mario Balotelli, who said his standing has increased since finding himself more involved with the Italy first team.

“After Euro 2012 I noted that my popularity increased. Thanks to the Italy squad, now fans of other clubs are starting to like me too. I can see from the way they act around me,” the former Manchester City man said.

“The Nazionale (national team) has something special, something more. I can’t explain it, it’s above all else.”

Balotelli has scored eight times for Milan and Italy in as many matches, but even the super-confident extrovert does not intend to take Malta lightly.

“I spoke to my father after the Brazil draw and he told me off because I missed so many goals,” Balotelli said.

“Now a big game awaits us in Malta and we want to do well because that game will mean a lot for our World Cup qualifying.”

Mon 25 March, 2013
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