Preview: Italy vs. Malta

Preview: Italy vs. Malta

Seeking back-to-back victories to cut the gap to Group C leaders England down to three points, Italy welcome already-eliminated Malta to the Stadio San Nicola in Bari on Saturday.

The Azzurri triumphed 2-1 over Ukraine in their most recent Euro 2024 qualifying encounter, while their cellar-dwelling visitors were comfortably put to the sword by North Macedonia in a 2-0 beating.

With their Euro 2020 final opponents taking a brief break from competitive action to pit their wits against Australia in a friendly, Italy can pile the pressure on the Three Lions heading into next Tuesday’s tantalising Wembley reunion, and steady progress has been made under Scudetto-winning coach Luciano Spalletti.

Since beginning the defence of their crown with a 2-1 loss to Gareth Southgate’s vengeful troops, Spalletti’s side have responded by taking seven points from the last nine on offer in Group C, although the Azzurri did not exactly assert their dominance in September.

A forgettable 1-1 draw away to North Macedonia preceded a narrow 2-1 triumph over the Ukrainians, who were hit by a Davide Frattesi brace before pulling one back through Andriy Yarmolenko, but Italy nevertheless clung on to move into second place in the tightly-packed section.

All of Italy, Ukraine and North Macedonia lie on seven points in the section – with the unbeaten England riding off into the sunset with 13 – but owing to their recent Nations League exertions, where they overcame the Netherlands in the third-placed playoff, Spalletti’s men have a game in hand on all of the teams around them.

March’s home loss to England incredibly represents Italy’s sole defeat from their last 44 European Championship qualifying matches, and not since a goalless draw with Northern Ireland in 2010 have the reigning champions failed to score at this stage – statistics which offer a mauled Malta little optimism indeed.

Even if Italy are bumped out of the top two in the coming months, the Azzurri will be offered a second bite at the qualification cherry in the playoff route, which is more than can be said for a Malta side whose Group C campaign has been yet another humbling experience.

The visitors’ agonising wait for a first major tournament appearance is now guaranteed to go on, as the team managed by Italian native Michele Marcolini were consigned to their fate by North Macedonia, who struck through Eljif Elmas and Jovan Manev on matchday five.

A sudden charge for a top-two finish was already fanciful at best for the world’s 171st-ranked nation, who remain bottom of Group C without a single point to their name – as well as just one goal to show for their efforts – and they can officially no longer finish any higher than third.

A pair of 1-0 friendly wins over Luxembourg and Gibraltar this year means that the Maltese faithful have at least had something to shout about, but the latter are one of only two goalless sides to have performed worse on the attacking front than the Reds in the UEFA groups, alongside perennial whipping boys San Marino.

A 15th successive defeat in Euros qualifying is now expected to rear its ugly head for Malta, who have never beaten Italy in any of their previous 18 meetings and have not scored against the Azzurri since 1993; even then Carmel Busuttil’s penalty was a mere consolation in a 6-1 obliteration.

Italy Euro Champ Qualifying form:

Italy form (all competitions):

Malta Euro Champ Qualifying form:

Malta form (all competitions):

We say: Italy 4-0 Malta
Even with one eye on the impending trip to Wembley and a ravaged, Immobile-less attack, Italy should not run into many obstacles en route to a comfortable victory at the Stadio San Nicola.

The absence Teuma in particular will hamper Malta’s chances of breaking their 30-year goalless streak against the reigning European champions, and a sixth defeat from six surely awaits the Reds, as Italy send out a early warning to England ahead of next week’s highly-anticipated battle.

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