Italy racked up its first 2014 World Cup qualification win in Modena on Tuesday night, but in the most underwhelming fashion, Cesare Prandelli's men stuttering their way to a 2-0 win over Group B minnows Malta.
Mattia Destro opened the scoring with just over five minutes gone but the Azzurri failed dismally to build on their early advantage and struggled terribly to break down a side ranked 139th in the world.
Indeed, Federico Peluso's last-gasp header was scarcely deserved in light of such an insipid display from the Euro 2012 runners-up.
While Italy had looked very vulnerable in their 2-2 draw with Bulgaria last Friday, that they performed so poorly against Malta was surprising given it could not have hoped for a better start.
Indeed, less than six minutes had elapsed when Claudio Marchisio split the Malta defense with a measured ball from the middle of the park that Destro allowed to drift across him before coolly prodding past Andrew Hogg in the Malta goal.
With the Euro 2012 runner-up having made such an early breakthrough, a rout looked a distinct possibility and the Azzurri quickly set about trying to secure a two-goal cushion.
Pablo Osvaldo threatened twice either side of a well-struck Alessandro Diamanti freekick that Hogg did well to turn over the bar, the Roma striker first heading wide from a corner before then being denied by a splendidly-timed last-gasp challenge from Luke Dimech.
However, Italy soon ran out of ideas and Malta even began to threaten on the counterattack as a half which had begun so brightly quickly fizzled out.
Cesare Prandelli unsurprisingly responded to his side’s lackluster offensive display by replacing the dreadfully ineffective Diamanti with Lorenzo Insigne, who injected some badly needed excitement into the game.
Indeed, the Napoli forward’s quick feed and direct running caused the Maltese defense no end of trouble and it was from an Insigne pass that fellow substitute Giampaolo Pazzini should have doubled Italy’s advantage. However, the in-form AC Milan striker could only side-foot the ball wide from the edge of the six-yard area.
Pazzini, who proved far more of a handful than the man he had replaced, Osvaldo, threatened twice more before Italy finally grabbed a second right a death, with Peluso's near-post header from an Andrea Pirlo corner somehow finding its way past Hogg.
That goal, though, could not paper over the cracks that have been evident in Italy's opening two games in Group B and a massive improvement is needed ahead of next month's trip to Armenia and subsequent home game against Denmark.
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- Mattia Destro
- Cesare Prandelli
- Andrew Hogg