Italy defeats Bulgaria to move top of qualifying group
PALERMO, Sicily (AP) — Italy moved a step closer to qualifying for the 2016 European Championship after beating Bulgaria 1-0 to go top of Group H, while Norway beat Croatia 2-0 to leapfrog into second place on Sunday.
Daniele de Rossi scored with a re-taken penalty in the sixth minute for Italy after Veselin Minev had tripped Antonio Candreva. De Rossi went from hero to villain when he was sent off in the second half, along with Bulgaria forward Iliyan Mitsanski, after both committed fouls in retaliation.
It was a better performance from Italy than in Thursday's dull 1-0 win over Malta although the players were almost made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal. Gianluigi Buffon — making his 150th appearance for his country — was forced into a crucial save in stoppage time.
"We managed to get six points from two games," Italy coach Antonio Conte said. "It's a shame that considering the amount of chances we created, the result was in the balance to the end. We have to be more clinical up front. We create a lot but score little.
"But the team gave a lot, I'm happy."
Italy has 18 points, two more than Norway. Croatia is a point further back but also likely to lose a point for fan trouble pending an appeal.
Bulgaria has eight points, while Azerbaijan has six and Malta two following a 2-2 draw.
Jo Inge Berget scored the first for Norway six minutes after the interval and had a shot deflected in by the unfortunate Vedran Corluka for the second, in the 69th minute.
The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically for next year's tournament in France. The best third-place team also qualifies automatically, and the other eight third-place finishers go into a playoff.
Conte rung the changes for Italy, bringing in Stephan El Shaarawy, Candreva and De Rossi, and dropping Andrea Pirlo to the bench.
El Shaarawy wasn't even on the bench against Malta. But he almost had an instant impact when, within 50 seconds of kickoff, he sent a bicycle kick over the bar after Graziano Pelle had forced a desperate save.
It didn't take long for Italy to score although De Rossi had to take his penalty again due to encroachment. The Roma midfielder coolly slotted his spot-kick into the bottom right corner both times, despite Bulgaria goalkeeper Bozhidar Mitrev guessing the correct way the second time.
De Rossi had scored on his Italy debut at the same stadium.
Italy was fired up and went close several times although it was almost caught out in the 19th minute and Gianluigi Buffon — making his 150th appearance for his country — needed to make a smart save to turn Mitsanski's effort around his right post.
The match turned bad tempered 10 minutes after the interval when Mitsanski lightly stamped on De Rossi, who reacted by kicking up at him from the ground.
Both players were shown red cards.
"(De Rossi) shouldn't do that," Conte said.