Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence
Thursday 3rd September, 2015, 19:45 GMT
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 one point behind leaders Croatia, who meet Azerbaijan away on the same day, while Norway are three points off the summit in third place. 1968 Euro champions Italy have won all seven of their contests with Malta. The pair also met in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, with the Italians overcoming their unfancied opponents 2-0 both home and away. Though Antonio Contea 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. Maltaa 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.
Team news and tactics
Italy have a strong recent European Championship record and were runners-up in the last edition of the tournament in 2012 a losing to Spain in the final. Antonio Conte’s side cannot afford to look ahead to next summer just yet as they attempt to secure qualification from their section. As it stands, they sit second in Group H on 12 points a one point behind the leaders Croatia and two points ahead of third-place Norway after six matches. Italy opened their qualification campaign with three straight wins over Norway, Azerbaijan and Malta and did not concede a single goal in the process. They have drawn each of their last three against Croatia (home and away) and Bulgaria, which has seen them drop into second position in the section. Conte’s side have two home games this month as they prepare to face Bulgaria on Sunday after hosting Malta. Back-to-back victories would place Italy in a strong position ahead of their final two fixtures. Italy will enter this match after a 1-0 defeat to Portugal in a friendly in June which means that they are four games without a win in all competitions.
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 with a thigh problem, while Andrea Pirlo has been retained in the squad, despite leaving Serie A for the United States earlier this summer. A strong XI is expected to include the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Daniele de Rossi, while Monaco’s Stephan El Shaarawy will also be hoping for a spot in the team.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3):Buffon(Gk); Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, Criscito; De Rossi, Pirlo, Verratti; Candreva, Pelle, El Shaarawy
Seven members of the Malta squad come from the Birkirkara team which took West Ham United to penalties in the Europa League qualifiers this season, while manager Pietro Ghedina an Italian who served on the national teama s coaching staffa has called up three uncapped players. 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 cluba 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.
Maltese legend and skipper Michael Mifsuda formerly of Coventry City in Englanda remains their star player, scoring 39 international goals compared to the 12 managed by the rest of the squad combined, with defender Clayton Failla managing their only goal of qualifying so fara a penalty in the creditable 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia last November. Mifsud is once again expected to lead the line for the Reds, while Roderick Briffa will provide experience for the visitors.
Probable Starting Line-up (3-5-2):Haber(Gk); Zach Muscat, Agius, Bajada, Failla; Alex Muscat, Briffa, Rowen Muscat, Fenech; Mifsud, Effiong
Italy have won all seven of their matches against Malta, with an aggregate score of 20-2.
Malta have not scored against Italy in three meetings since a Carmel Busuttil penalty 68 minutes into a 6-1 World Cup qualifying defeat in March 1993.
Italy have not lost a European qualifier at home since September 1999, when they were beaten 3-2 by Denmark.
Players to Watch Out For
Graziano Pelle (Italy)
In Southamptona s Pelle, the Italians have a forward who has impressed in a division where plenty of his compatriots have struggled in recent yearsa scoring his fourth goal of the season in all competitions in Sundaya s win over Norwich City. The match-winner the last time Italy played Malta, he should be in line for his fifth cap here and perhaps his third goal.
Birkirkara stopper Justin Haber will need to use all of his experience on an evening when he is almost certain to be busy. The 34-year-old former Sheffield United and Ferencvaros goalkeeper played a starring role in his sidea s Europa League matches against West Ham earlier this summer, only conceding once to the Premier League side over 180 minutes before a penalty shootout defeat.
Italy 3a 1 Malta
Malta might have lost five of their six Group H matches, but they have not really been blown away in terms of big scorelines. Italy will rightly enter as the favourites and should have enough to claim three comfortable points.
Blast From the Past
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.