European champions Italy return to Football World Cup qualifying, hosting Bulgaria at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence. After a triumphant summer that changed the world’s perception of the Azzurri, they will be looking to continue their perfect start to qualifying for the Qatar Football World Cup 2022.
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Less than two months after glory at Wembley Stadium, the Euro 2020 winners will play three matches that could make them a global force in the Middle East in just over a year. Roberto Mancini’s uprising came to a perfect conclusion with victory over hosts England in July, and the second continental title makes Italy one of the favorites to win the biggest prize in Qatar.
In Tuscany, they will be looking to extend their 34-game unbeaten streak with an excellent goal difference of +76 against an opponent they beat 2-0 in Sofia earlier in the year. Italy defeated Bulgaria with relative ease thanks to goals from Andrea Belotti at the end of both halves who himself converted a controversial penalty and substitute Manuel Locatelli, who decided the game with a brilliant strike in the closing stages.
Victories over Northern Ireland and Lithuania gave the Grizzlies a good starting position in Group C, where Switzerland is their main rival for the only automatic qualification spot. The remarkable unbeaten streak has now lasted for nearly three years, and Mancini certainly doesn’t expect the bar to be lowered anytime soon after reaching such a high point, especially with an important match against Switzerland looming.
After Bulgaria at least picked up their first point of the tournament in their third qualifier last March, they now face the toughest task of the tournament with an away game in Italy. The Lions face the country that narrowly denied them a place in the 1994 Football World Cup final, and has only a faint hope of reaching next year’s playoffs as runners-up. For more details about Football World Cup Tickets.
They trailed by three goals against Switzerland before the 15-minute mark, and things didn’t go much better for the Bulgarians, with their only goal so far coming in a goalless draw in Northern Ireland. The Bulgarians have won just two of their last 28 matches the last being a friendly against Gibraltar in November as they followed up a disastrous start to Football World Cup qualifying with a series of postseason friendlies, none of which they won.
In their last friendly, they defeated France 3-0 as they failed to register a single shot on goal and surrendered 70% of possession. Bulgaria has not capable for the finals since 1998 four years after famously finishing fourth in the USA when Italy lost in the final and their drought is certain to continue until at least 2026.
Roberto Mancini remained faithful to his European champions as he fielded a familiar selection last week, but substitute striker Andrea Belotti was dropped from the squad as he struggled with injury at the start of the new season. Despite the Torino captain’s departure, Mancini does not need to replace him as he has Immobile, Juventus returnee Moise Keane and Sassuolo duo Giacomo Laspadori and Gianluca Scamacca at his disposal upfront.
Milan defender Davide Calabria, now captain of the Rossoneri, was a late call-up to the squad as a replacement for the injured Manuel Lazzari, who made his debut for the Azzurri last November and has played just one international match so far. The long-injured Nicolo Zaniolo is back after a few months off, and the Roma golden boy could displace Nicolo Barella on his debut.
Bulgarian coach Arsene Petrov, in his first season as a national team coach, has called up ten players without international caps to the squad, but Sofia Central striker Kaloyan Krastev was the only new addition this week. Monza defender Valentin Antov and Spezia’s Petko Hristov join Ascoli striker Atanas Iliev as the visitors’ Italian players, both of whom will make their Fiorentina debuts. Petrov’s preferred 3-5-2 should also feature Kirill Despodov, who featured as a goal scorer against the Swiss.
Italy’s likely starting lineup
Donnarumma; Chiellini, Bonucci, Di Lorenzo, Emerson; Verratti, Jorginho, Barella; Insigne, Immobile, Chiesa.
Bulgaria’s probable starting lineup
Mikhailov; Hristov, Antov, Bozhikov; Nedeljev, Marinov, Kostadinov, Chochev, Karagaren; Despodov, Delev
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