European champions Italy return to the World Cup qualifying trail on Thursday, as they welcome Bulgaria to Florence’s Stadio Artemio Franchi.
After a triumphant summer which changed perceptions of them around the globe, the Azzurri look to continue their perfect start to the qualification process for Qatar 2022.
Less than two months on from revelling in glory at Wembley, the winners of Euro 2020 are set to undertake a trio of fixtures which could see them halfway to the Middle Eastern global gathering in just over a year’s time.
Roberto Mancini’s revolution reached a sublime conclusion with victory over hosts England in July, and their second continental title sees Italy as one of the favourites to claim the biggest prize in Qatar.
They will convene in Tuscany with the aim of continuing a 34-game unbeaten streak – during which they boast a remarkable goal difference of +76 – against opponents they beat 2-0 in Sofia during the spring.
Italy overcame Bulgaria with relative ease, thanks to goals at the end of both halves, from Andrea Belotti – a penalty he had controversially won himself – and substitute Manuel Locatelli, who killed the game with a wonderful curled strike late on.
Coming between victories over Northern Ireland and Lithuania (both also 2-0), the Azzurri put themselves in pole position in Group C, where Switzerland are their main rivals for the sole automatic qualification spot.
Their remarkable run without defeat now covers a period of nearly three years, and Mancini will certainly not expect standards to drop soon after reaching such a pinnacle – particularly with a crunch game versus Switzerland up next on the itinerary.
Having at least picked up a first point of the campaign in their third qualifying match last March, now Bulgaria approach their toughest task of the process, with an away fixture in Italy.
The Lions face the nation which narrowly denied them a place in the 1994 World Cup Final with only faint hopes of reaching the playoffs for next year’s event by virtue of a runners-up finish. Already five points behind Switzerland despite having played a game more, the side overseen by Yasen Petrov are more likely to battle it out for third with the other Group C also-rans over the next few months.
Three goals behind before even 15 minutes of the campaign had been played versus the Swiss, things have got little better for the Bulgarians, as their only point to date came from a goalless draw in Northern Ireland.
In fact, Bulgaria have come out on top in just two of their last 28 matches – the most recent of which was a friendly success versus Gibraltar in November – as they followed their bleak World Cup qualifying start with a series of post-season friendlies, none of which they were able to win.
The most recent of those outings saw France swat them aside 3-0, as they failed to muster a single shot on target and gave up 70% of the possession. Having failed to qualify for the final stages since 1998 – four years after famously finishing fourth in the USA, as Italy lost in the final – Bulgaria’s drought is surely set to continue until 2026 at least.
Italy World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Italy form (all competitions):
Bulgaria World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Bulgaria form (all competitions):
We say: Italy 2-0 Bulgaria
As Bulgaria’s goal threat is minimal, even if the Azzurri cannot hit the heights of midsummer, they should comfortably record another two-goal win to keep their 100% record intact before the weekend clash with Switzerland.
Roberto Mancini has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal and they will be eager to continue in the same vein until they reach Qatar next winter.