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By Terry Daley
ROME Sept 6 (Reuters) - Italy moved to within one match of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup after Alberto Gilardino's close range header handed them a nervy 1-0 win against Bulgaria on Friday.
Gilardino's 38th minute goal lifted Cesare Prandelli's side to 17 points at the top of Group B, seven clear of second-place Bulgaria with three games to play.
In the second half Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon twice had to be at his best to save his side from a potentially costly draw, with a wonder save three minutes after the break somehow keeping out what looked to be a certain equaliser from Ivelin Popov.
The Azzurri are also now eight points ahead of the Czech Republic, who lie third on nine points after conceding an injury time goal to lose 2-1 at home to Armenia.
"We're close to the World Cup but at the moment things are being complicated by our not being in perfect physical condition," said Prandelli.
"We had to make three changes due to injuries and Buffon saved us with his extraordinary saves."
If Italy beat the Czechs on Tuesday they will directly qualify for the finals in Brazil.
Bulgaria, who travel to bottom side Malta, are locked in a four-way battle for a place in the playoffs with the Czechs, Armenia and Denmark, who are all on nine points.
"If you win like that it shows that you've got a good group of players. Knowing how to win when you're struggling is a great sign," said Gilardino.
"I've never stopped working or given up. That's always been my strength and if I carry on I think I can improve as a player even at 31 years of age and do well for Italy."
Buffon had to be at his very best just after the break to stop what looked to be a certain leveller from Popov. The striker had raced on to a volleyed Aleksandar Tonev cross and thumped it at what looked like an open goal from point-blank range, only to see the Juventus keeper stretch and claw it out.
Buffon had to make another superb reaction save from Dimitar Rangelov's header just after the hour.
With Italy struggling to get out of their own half after defenders Luca Antonelli and Ignazio Abate picked up injuries, Bulgaria continued to pile on the pressure on their tiring hosts and were unlucky not to score an equaliser.
After the match Italy's team doctor Enrico Castellacci said that both defenders would miss next week's match against the Czech Republic. (Reporting by Terry Daley, editing by Pritha Sarkar)