Monday September 7th, 2015

Italian national team head coach Antonio Conte and goalkeeper Gigi Buffon have backed midfielder Andrea Pirlo's recent form in defense of critics following his performance against Malta.

Pirlo, 36, was benched for Sunday's 1–0 European Qualifiers triumph over Bulgaria in Palermo after starting in last week's 1–0 victory over Malta. Pirlo has struggled on the international stage since joining New York City FC earlier in the summer after four seasons with Juventus. 

“Every player knows when it's time to stop, but if you ask me Andrea still has plenty to offer,” Buffon told FIFA.com after earning his 150th cap for the Azzurri.

Conte, who coached Pirlo at Juventus, was among the people who convinced him to stay with the international team following the 2014 World Cup.

“What really disappoints me is the lack of respect from some towards an immense player like Pirlo,” Conte told Sky Sports. “He deserves more respect in every way.”

Italy defeats Bulgaria to move top of qualifying group

Teammate Marco Verratti says that he does not care whether Pirlo retires.

“I don't care about who's playing alongside me,” Verratti told Goal.com “I'll try to do my best and then the coach will make his evaluations.”

Italy sits two points ahead of Norway following their 1–0 win over Bulgaria on Sunday. Italy will play Azerbaijan on Oct. 10 and then Norway on Oct. 13.

- Christopher Chavez

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.