Italy v Malta – Preview: Azzurri aim to pile pressure on Group H leaders
Italy host Malta at the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Thursday, as they bid to keep pace at the top of European Championship Qualifying Group H.
The Azzurri are two points behind leaders Croatia, who meet Azerbaijan away on the same day, while Norway are four points off the summit in third place.
1968 tournament champions Italy have won all seven of their contests with Malta, notching up a huge aggregate score of 20 goals to two.
The pair also met in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, with the Italians overcoming their unfancied opponents 2-0 both home and away.
Their last clash came in October 2014, when Graziano Pelle scored on his debut to earn an unusually narrow 1-0 win for Italy against Malta.
Though Antonio Conte’s men are unbeaten throughout this qualification campaign so far, they have drawn their last three Euro 2016 encounters in a row.
Malta, meanwhile, are without a competitive success in their last 10 matches, stretching back to a 1-0 win over Armenia in 2013.
Malta’s solitary point and goal of this group phase arrived in Sofia against Bulgaria during a 1-1 draw, courtesy of a Clayton Failla penalty.
Sebastian Giovinco, fresh from setting Major League Soccer alight with Toronto FC, has been disappointingly ruled out for the home side after picking up an abductor muscle injury in training.
Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio will miss the game through a thigh problem, and club team-mate Stefano Sturaro is also out due to suspension.
Andrea Pirlo has been retained in the squad, despite leaving Serie A for the United States earlier this summer.
Malta national boss Pietro Ghedin, who is in his second spell at the helm, made the surprise inclusion of 24-year-old defender Alex Cini from newly-promoted Pembroke Athleta, after he shone on the club’s top-flight debut last week.
The former Lazio defender will know the Italian line-up intimately, having been Azzurri assistant coach between 1996 and 2005 under Cesare Maldini, Dino Zoff and Giovanni Trapattoni. He can also include counterpart Conte among the players he coached during that period.
Despite the pleasantries involved, the current Italy coach will be only too aware of the requirement to claim all three points in Florence.
Form Guide (competitive fixtures): Italy (W-W-W-D-D-D) Malta (L-L-L-D-L-L)
Expected Starting XIs
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, Criscito; De Rossi, Pirlo, Verratti; Candreva, Pelle, El Shaarawy.
Malta: Haber; Zach Muscat, Agius, Bajada, Failla; Alex Muscat, Briffa, Rowen Muscat, Fenech; Mifsud, Effiong.