SOFIA (AFP) – Italy kept their World Cup qualifying campaign on track with a hard-fought 2-0 Group C win over Bulgaria who fell to their second consecutive defeat in Sofia on Sunday.
Andrea Belotti got the first goal from the penalty spot just before the break with Manuel Locatelli sealing the win with his first ‘Azzurri’ goal with eight minutes to go.
Roberto Mancini’s side are top of their group after winning their opener 2-0 against Northern Ireland in Parma on Thursday with Bulgaria losing 3-1 at home against Switzerland.
The four-time world champions missed out on the finals in 2018, but under Mancini extended their unbeaten run to 24 games, after their perfect Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
“There are no easy games,” said the former Manchester City coach.
“Especially against a team like Bulgaria who gets behind the ball and waits for the counterattack.
“It’s obvious we find less space and it’s difficult to break the deadlock. Victory is the most important thing, the team has shown consistency. At this time of the season all teams are tired.”
Italy were without defender Giorgio Chiellini with forwards Domenico Berardi and Francesco Caputo also ruled out, with six changes from the side who beat Northern Ireland.
Torino captain Belotti started up front alongside Juventus forward Federico Chiesa, with the midfield seeing the return of Inter Milan players Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi, after a coronavirus outbreak at their club side.
Despite Italy dominating early against the country they beat in the 1994 World Cup semi-finals, the visitors were pegged back by the Bulgarians.
Yasen Petrov’s home side had conceded three goals in the first 13 minutes against the Swiss on Thursday, but were tougher against Italy.
Chiesa and Belotti were both unable to connect with crosses from Leonardo Spinazzola and Alessandro Florenzi.
But the breakthrough came when Belotti went down under a Daniel Dimov challenge as he ran to connect with Lorenzo Insigne’s through ball.
“It was an important goal because we unlocked a difficult match,” said Belotti who slotted in his 11th goal in 32 international appearances.
“We practised a few penalties before the game because our specialist Jorginho was not playing.” Goosebumps
Bulgaria had penalty appeals for a Stefano Sensi handball ruled out after 57 minutes.
And Belotti missed a chance for a second midway through the second half with a lob hitting the post and sending the rebound over.
Locatelli came on for Stefano Sensi after 68 minutes, with Ciro Immobile replacing Belotti and Federico Bernardeschi in for Chiesa for the final quarter of an hour.
Insigne teed up Locatelli to curl in the second with eight minutes to go.
“My first Italy goal, it’s incredible, I’ve still got goosebumps,” said the 23-year-old Sassuolo midfielder.
“It’s impossible to describe. I play football for this kind of emotion and I will always carry this with me.”
Italy claimed their first ever win in Bulgaria on their seventh attempt.
Mancini extended his unbeaten run with Italy to 24 consecutive games, just behind former World Cup winning coaches Marcello Lippi (25) and Vittorio Pozzo (30).
Italy next play Lithuania in Vilnius tomorrow. They first come up against their main group rivals Switzerland in September.