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March 26, 2013
• Ta'Qali National Stadium, Ta'Qali
Referee: S. Gözübüyük
• Attendance: 17011
M. Balotelli 8', 45'
Next up for Italy is a potentially tricky trip to Prague on June 7 to face Czech Republic whilst Malta take on Armenia in a bid to earn their first points in qualifying. Thanks for joining me, Max Bentley, on this Goal.com live commentary. Make sure to check out the match report, player ratings and reaction. Until next time, goodbye!
So, Mario Balotelli steals the headlines once again as his double takes him to ten goals in nine games for club and country in 2013. If he continues in this rich vein of form, Italy could prove a match for any national side.
FULL TIME: MALTA 0 - 2 ITALY. A first-half Mario Balotelli double ensures Italy take advantage of Bulgaria's slip to move three points clear at the top of group B. It certainly wasn't the most convincing of displays from Cesare Prandelli's side who had to rely on Gianluigi Buffon to keep out Michael Mifsud's spotkick. Plenty of positives for Pietro Ghedin's side but they remain pointless after five games.
The referee brings the game to an end as Italy repeat the same scoreline from the reverse fixture in September.
Italy are looking to finish the game with a flourish as Candreva whips a dangerous cross into the Malta box but Gilardino's glancing header flashes narrowly wide of Faber's goal.
Despite spurning a first-half penalty, Malta's all-time record goalscorer Michael Mifsud goes off to a standing ovation and is replaced by Terence Vella.
Mario Balotelli is the match-winner this evening but he is denied the chance of a hattrick as he replaced for the final few minutes by Bologna forward Alberto Gilardino.
Italy finally opt to go for goal when Balotelli finds Candreva 25 yards out but the Lazio midfielder's ambitious effort flies high over Haber's crossbar.
Montolivo plays a smart ball over the Malta centre-backs for Balotelli to chase and the Milan forward produces a neat backheel flick but Abate cannot quite get on the end of it and Camilleri clears.
Attacking change for Malta as Hibernians FC forward Andrew Cohen comes on to replace his club teammate Clayton Failla.
Antonio Candreva whips a cross into the Malta box from the left but Balotelli's control lets him down and Dimech clears the ball upfield.
Good news for Italy as the match between Denmark and Bulgaria finished in a 1-1 draw. Cesare Prandelli's side are set to go three points clear at the top of group B.
Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. The Italians continue to frustrate Malta by knocking the ball about in the midfield without any real urgency to attack. 13 minutes remaining.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Cesare Prandelli makes his second change, introducing Torino winger Alessio Cerci in place of Stephan El Shaarawy. The Milan forward has put in another impressive performance tonight and is certainly good value for a starting berth in the next qualifier.
Antonio Candreva produces a neat piece of skill to jink past Muscat down the right but his teasing low cross is well held by Haber, with Balotelli lurking.
Omonia Nicosia forward Andre Schembri has caused the Azzurri defence problems with some moments of real quality this evening. Certainly the home side's best performer.
Italy continue to pass the ball around the midfield and defence without any real urgency to probe in search of a third goal. Prandelli's side are just looking to see this game out for the remaining 20 minutes.
Italy are enjoying plenty of possession in the final third but they have hardly threatened Haber in this second period. Perhaps a bit of complacency creeping into the Azzurri.
Pirlo steps up to strike a freekick after Candreva is fouled just outside the box and his dipping effort is deflected behind for a corner. From the resulting corner, Haber comfortably claims.
Edward Herrera succeeds in latching onto a long ball over the top of the Italy defence but his goalbound effort is well blocked by De Sciglio.
Antonio Candreva looks to give the Azzurri midfield some fresh legs as he replaces Emanuele Giaccherini.
Andre Schembri produces some splendid footwork to get away from Montolivo down the left touchline and he sets up Mifsud on the edge of the box, but the Valletta striker's effort is blocked excellently by Barzagli.
The home side are screaming for another penalty when Mifsud goes down in the box under a challenge from Barzagli. It did look like the Juventus man won the ball fairly however.
It seems that Cesare Prandelli is about to break this Milan-Juventus XI by bringing on Lazio midfielder Antonio Candreva.
GOOD CHANCE FOR ITALY! Ignazio Abate does brilliantly to burst into space down the right wing but his cutback bobbles up awkwardly for Giaccherini who recovers well after a poor first touch to force Haber into a smart stop. Can Italy find a third goal?
Alexander Muscat finds himself in an unconventional attacking position inside the Italy box and his vicious shot narrowly flashes wide of Buffon's goal.
Malta capitalise upon a mistake from Giaccherini but Herrera's low cross from the right cannot pick out a red shirt in the box and the ball goes into the side netting.
Italy are looking to kill this game off as Andrea Pirlo delivers a teasing freekick into the Malta box but it is glanced wide by the head of Barzagli.
Malta get the second half underway. Can they grab an early goal to put Prandelli's side under pressure?
In the other group B matches this evening, Czech Republic defeated Armenia 3-0 whilst Denmark and Bulgaria are tied 1-1 at half-time. As things stand, Italy would move three points clear at the top.
Is Balotelli at the top of his game right now? Is there a better penalty-taker in the modern game? Let me know your thoughts and predictions on the match via Twitter @MaxBentley1.
HT: MALTA 0 - 2 ITALY. A tale of two spotkicks as Mario Balotelli opened the scoring for the Azzurri before Michael Mifsud saw his penalty saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Pietro Ghedin's side have produced a spirited display and have not allowed Italy time and space on the ball, but a piece of magic right at the end of the first half which saw Balotelli snatch his second goal ensures it is a huge mountain to climb now if Malta are to salvage anything from this match.
Assist Mattia De Sciglio
Goal Mario Balotelli
2-0 ITALY! BRILLIANT FROM BALOTELLI! Barzagli starts the move when his excellent diagonal pass finds De Sciglio on the left and the 20-year-old does brilliantly to surge past Caruana and cut the ball back for Balotelli, who opens up his body and slots the ball across Haber and into the far corner. 10 goals in 9 games for club and country in 2013, is there any stopping Balotelli?
Balotelli wins a freekick around 30 yards from goal but his fiercely-struck effort balloons high over Haber's crossbar. Two minutes remaining until the interval.
The fans here at the Ta'Qali National Stadium certainly seem to be enjoying themselves as a Mexican wave goes around the ground.
Italy attack again with Abate laying the ball off on the edge of the box for Montolivo, but the Milan midfielder's effort blazes high over the crossbar.
Italy are in the ascendency now and they nearly snatch a second when De Sciglio's cross from the left is met by Giaccherini but his header flashes narrowly wide of the goal.
Pirlo is fouled on the edge of the Malta box and the veteran midfielder picks himself up to strike the set-piece, despite the demands of Balotelli, but can only hit the ball straight into the wall. Disappointing.
Mario Balotelli is never one to shy away from a confrontation and he becomes involved in a spot of handbags with Dimech. However, the referee is on the case quickly to break up the pair.
Andrea Pirlo is coming deep to receive the ball time and time again and he plays a glorious lobbed pass over the Malta defence for Abate but the ball has too much pace on it and the Milan defender cannot get a shot on goal.
Italy attack down the other end and Marchisio looks to find El Shaarawy in the box with a teasing cross but Caruana is there to produce a crucial header and deflect the ball behind for a corner.
Failla whips in the resulting corner towards the front post but it is volleyed well wide by Caruana.
MALTA GO CLOSE! Pietro Ghedin's side win a freekick 30 yards from goal which Clayton Failla strikes with venom, forcing Buffon to tip the ball expertly around the post for a corner.
Mario Balotelli has not seen too much of the ball in the last ten minutes but this time he receives the ball on the edge of the box and switches the ball onto his left foot before smashing a drive narrowly past Haber's right-hand post.
Malta look to break through the Italian backline through Camilleri but the Hibernians FC midfielder sees his through ball well intercepted by Barzagli. This game is not going as smoohly as Italy might have imagined.
Malta are giving the Azzurri midfield trio a real battle in the middle of the pitch but they just cannot find that quality in the final third. Pietro Ghedin will be pleased with his side's performance despite the scoreline.
GOOD PLAY FROM ITALY! Stephan El Shaarawy does brilliantly to pluck the ball out of the air on the left flank and square the ball for Montolivo, who takes the ball past the challenge of Caruana brilliantly before dinking an effort over Haber and onto the roof of the net.
Italy are looking a little shakey here after that Malta spell which twice saw them denied an equaliser. Can the home side make their pressure count?
MIFSUD HITS THE BAR! The Valletta forward almost goes from zero to hero when he skips past the challenge of Leonardo Bonucci and sends a rasping strike from outside the box against the crossbar with Buffon stranded. So unlucky for Mifsud!
MIFSUD MISSES! The Valletta forward opts for power but strikes the ball too central and Buffon makes a comfortable save to redeem himself. What a chance for Malta!
Penalty save Gianluigi Buffon
Missed Penalty Michael Mifsud
Yellow Card Gianluigi Buffon
PENALTY MALTA! The home side have the chance to level after Buffon brings down Andre Schembri in the box and is cautioned. Mifsud will take it. Can he score his 37th international goal?
ITALY HAVE THE BALL IN THE NET...BUT IT'S OFFSIDE! Ignazio Abate cuts in from the right flank and delivers a cross towards the backpost where Balotelli nods the ball across for El Shaarawy to tap in from a few yards out but the goal won't stand as the linesman's flag was raised against Balotelli.
EL SHAARAWY GOES CLOSE! The 20-year-old goes close to notching his second Azzurri goal when he collects a pass on the edge of the box with his back to goal before turning and sending a curling effort narrowly wide of Haber's left-hand post.
Italy look to double their lead immediately when Balotelli cushions the ball down deftly for Giaccherini but the ball is stolen off the Juventus midfielder's toes at the last-minute by Dimech.
Penalty Goal Mario Balotelli
1-0 ITALY! Mario Balotelli predictably converts the penalty with composure, sending Justin Haber the wrong way after his customary slow run-up. That is now nine goals in nine games for club and country in 2013.
PENALTY TO ITALY! Cesare Prandelli's side have the chance to take an early lead when Stephan El Shaarawy is sent tumbling after nicking the ball away from the challenge of Luke Dimech. Balotelli will take it...
Good pressing early on from the home nation who are determined not to let Pirlo and his midfield compatriots settle on the ball. They have enjoyed possession down the right flank, possibly looking to exploit the inexperience of Mattia De Sciglio in the early stages.
Malta coach Pietro Ghedin comes from Italy and in fact, he was the assistant coach of the Italian national team between 1996-2004.
Good atmosphere here with every early tackle being cheered by the Malta fans. They really need to get behind their nation this evening.
Italy get the game underway with Marchisio feeding an early ball in behind the Maltese defence for Balotelli who loses his footing, much to the amusement of the home support.
In the reverse fixture back in September, the Azzurri emerged 2-0 winners courtesy of goals from Mattia Destro and Federico Peluso.
Captains Michael Mifsud and Gianluigi Buffon lead the handshakes between the sides. Mifsud is Malta's all-time leading goalscorer with 36 goals but he is yet to find the net in this qualifying campaign. Can he find a way past the Juventus shotstopper this evening who is making his 126th Azzurri appearance?
The teams have emerged from the tunnel and onto the pitch. The Italian national anthem echoes around the Ta'Qali National Stadium with Gianluigi Buffon singing with his typical gusto. The Malta national anthem follows with plenty of flags being waved by the home crowd. Kickoff is only moments away...
The Italian lineup is comprised solely of players from Milan (5) and Juventus (6). JuveMilantus? That is only the third time it has happened in the nation's history, the other two occasions took place back in 1947 when the Azzurri was comprised solely of players from Juventus and Torino.
As for Italy, Cesare Prandelli welcomes back Claudio Marchisio and Ignazio Abate after their pair missed the Brazil match through illness and injury respectively. They take the place of the suspended Daniele De Rossi and Christian Maggio. Roma forward Pablo Daniel Osvaldo is also suspended, meaning that 20-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy starts up front alongside his Milan teammate Mario Balotelli.
Pietro Ghedin makes four changes to the side which were thumped 6-0 by Bulgaria including goalkeeper Andrew Hogg making way for Justin Haber. Alexander Muscat, Garetch Sciberras and Ryan Camilleri also come into the side in place of Andre Agius, Paul Fenech and Ryan Fenech.
ITALY (4-3-1-2): Buffon; Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, De Sciglio; Montolivo, Pirlo, Marchisio; Giaccherini; El Shaarawy, Balotelli.
MALTA (4-4-1-1): Haber; Caruana, Dimech, Muscat, Failla; Briffa, Herrera, Sciberras, Camilleri; Schembri; Mifsud.
Without any further ado, here are tonight's lineups...
The head-to-head statistics also lie heavily in Italy's favour, having won all five of the previous matches against Malta with a combined score of 17-2. Can Pietro Ghedin's side spring an unlikely surprise this evening?
The Azzurri returned to international action last Thursday when they bounced back from a two-goal half-time deficit to earn a deserved 2-2 draw against Brazil with goals from Daniele De Rossi and Mario Balotelli. If Prandelli's outfit can show the same quality and determination they produced in their second half display, I fear it could be another long night for Malta, who themselves slumped to a 6-0 defeat to Bulgaria on Friday.
Italy look to avoid a potential banana skin on their journey to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup when they take on a struggling Malta. Cesare Prandelli's side currently lead Bulgaria by a solitary point at the summit of qualifying group B and they will be expected to gain all three points here against a side who are yet to register a point after four games, scoring only one goal in the process. It really is a David vs. Goliath contest. Bringing you all the action from the Ta'Qali National Stadium, my name is Max Bentley. Feel free to let me know your predictions and thoughts on the match via Twitter @MaxBentley1.
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