6th September, 19:45 BST
Italy host Bulgaria in a crucial World Cup qualifier tonight as a win for the Azzurri will see them get to the brink of qualification for the World Cup in Brazil. Italy and Bulgaria are the only undefeated side in group B and their last encounter ended in an exciting 2-2 draw. Monolev scored in 30th minute of the match to give the home side a lead, but Italy were quick to respond as a brace from Osvaldo in space of four minutes put them back in front, but Milanov equalized for Bulgaria in the second half as the spoils were shared.
Most of the talks ahead of this fixture have been about the future of Cesar Prandelli. It is being speculated that Prandelli will step down from the role after the next year’s World Cup and the likes of Roberto Mancini and Fabio Cannavaro have been already linked with the job. Prandelli has remained tight lipped about these reports as he concentrates on the remaining matches in the Group B.
Cesare Prandelli’s side currently leads the point table with four victories in six matches and a win against Bulgaria tonight can put them in firm control of the group. Italy are coming into this match on the back of 2-1 loss at the hands of Argentina in a friendly last month. The home side conceded two goals on either side of the halftime, and although Insigne pulled one back in the 76th minute, but it turned out to be a consolation.
The Italian squad are coming off a busy summer as they participated in the Confederations Cup in Brazil, where they finished third. Italy’s last match in the World Cup qualifiers ended in a scoreless draw against Czech Republic. It was the first match in this group where the Italians failed to score. Cesare Prandelli would hope that his team can correct that against Bulgaria, but they will be without two of their key players in this game.
AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli and Pablo Osvaldo are suspended for this game and it could be a big loss for the side. Balotelli and Osvaldo have scored six of the 12 goals scored by Italy in this group and Prandelli will hope that Genoa forward Alberto Gilardino, who is expected to start his match, can provide similar spark upfront.
Prandelli is expected to make five changes to the side that started against Argentina last month. Abate will replace Maggio at the right back, while the midfield of Montolivo, Verratti and Marchisio is expected to be replaced by that of De Rossi, Pirlo and Motta. Interestingly De Rossi played as the center-back against Argentina, but he is e xpected to be pushed to the midfield once again as Bonucci resumes his partnership with Chiellini at the back.
Italy will play in their usual 4-3-2-1 formation with Gilardino leading the line and the likes of Giaccherini and Candreva supporting him. The width will mostly be provided by the full-backs, although Giaccherini and Candreva can also drift out wide. Bulgaria gave them a run for their money in the last encounter between these two sides and the Azzurri will once again have to be at the top of their game to beat their opponent.
Bulgaria are currently second in the points table, but just one points above Czech Republic who are breathing down their neck. A defeat in this match could possibly see them drop out of the play-off spot and will also provide a chance for Denmark to close in on them depending on results elsewhere. Bulgaria are also coming into this match on the back of a surprising 2-0 loss at the hands of Macedonia in a friendly last month. They conceded two late goals in that game, including a penalty, as the defence fell apart in the dying moments.
Talking of penalties, Lyuboslav Penev’s side conceded another one in their last World Cup qualifier against Denmark back in March. Manolev gave them a lead in this match with a wonderful goal in the second half, but they conceded a penalty in the just 12 minutes after taking the lead and Daniel Agger converted from the spot to level score. It could yet turn out to be a costly error as the race for the second place could be a close call.
Penev doesn’t have any major injury or suspension to contain with ahead of this fixture. But there has been a significant change in the squad as veteran striker Valeri Bojinov has been dropped for the next two games and Dimitar Rangelov has been recalled to the squad, after a gap of nearly one year. Rangelov is expected to lead the line with Popov providing most of the creativity behind him.
Bulgaria will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Dyakov and Gadzhev forming the double pivot in front of the defence. But Gadzhev will also join in attack when they have the possession, which means the formation will change to a 4-1-4-1 at that point. Tonev and Gargorov will provide the width in the attack.
Players to watch out for
Daniele De Rossi (Italy); Ivelin Popov(Bulgaria)
Italy 1-1 Bulgaria