Italy edge Malta in feisty encounter


Graziano Pelle marked his Italy debut with a goal as Antonio Conte's side defeated Malta 1-0 in the Euro 2016 Group H qualifying match on Monday night. Pelle reacted the quickest in a goalmouth scramble to turn in the loose ball and set Italy on their way to a victory which put them level on points with Croatia at the top of the group. Soon after things went from bad to worse for Malta as they were reduced to 10 men when Michael Mifsud was shown a straight red card in the 27th minute after fouling Alessandro Florenzi. It meant the home side had to play for an hour with a man down, and while they made it to the break without conceding another goal, they were not able to find their way back into the game despite Leonardo Bonucci's 73rd minute sending off for the Azzurri. The Italians started by far the brightest and Ciro Immobile had an early chance denied by defender Andrei Agius in the 11th minute when his shot from the right of the area was blocked. Antonio Candreva tried his luck a few minutes later only for Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg to make a comfortable save, before Zach Muscat had a chance blocked by Bonucci at the other end. Giorgio Chiellini went agonisingly close to giving Italy the lead in the 18th minute when his close-range header from Manuel Pasqual's corner hit the bar. Pasqual caused chaos in the Malta box with another corner a few minutes later, with Hogg fumbling a save from Pelle's header. However, the Southampton striker did not miss at the second time of asking when he slotted the ball into the bottom left-hand corner from inside the six yard box in the 24th minute after Hogg's fumbled save from Bonucci. Malta were reduced to 10 men three minutes later following Mifsud's dismissal but held out to half-time, with Italy's next shot on target coming from an Immobile header in the 53rd minute, with Hogg making a simple save. Pelle had another strike blocked by Agius shortly after the hour mark before Sebastian Giovinco put an effort over the bar as Italy made the most of their advantage. Agius came to Malta's rescue again to block a 20-yard strike by Giovinco before Italy were reduced to 10 men; Bonucci was shown a straight red card for a foul on Andre Schembri with a quarter of the match remaining. It did not deter the visitors as Hogg was called upon again to tip Giovinco's shot around the post in the 75th minute. Giovinco will be ruing several missed chances as he went even closer in stoppage time when his strike from the right of the area hit the post. However, his inability to score did not prove to be crucial, as Italy held on to their slender lead to claim all three points.