Italian national team manager Antonio Conte has come to the defence of under-fire midfielder Andrea Pirlo.

The former Juventus midfielder came under criticism for his below par performance in the 1-0 win over Malta. Subsequently, the 34-year-old was benched for last night’s 1-0 win over Bulgaria. Marco Verratti played in the holding midfield role and put in a much better performance than Pirlo.

Italy took an early lead in last night’s encounter courtesy of a Daniele De Rossi penalty. Bulgarian defender Veselin Minev fouled Antonio Candreva inside the box and De Rossi stepped up to convert the spot kick in his second attempt. The AS Roma midfielder had to retake the penalty after his first attempt was disallowed for encroachment.

De Rossi and Bulgarian striker Iliyan Mitsanski were sent-off 10 minutes into the second half. Mitsanski fouled De Rossi, who retaliated by kicking the Bulgarian and the duo were given the marching orders by the referee.

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“He deserves more respect in every way” – Conte on Pirlo

Conte expressed his disappointment at the lack of respect exhibited by the media and fans towards a player of the stature of Pirlo. Speaking to Sky Italia after the match, as quoted by Daily Mail, Conte said:

“What really disappoints me is the lack of respect from some towards an immense player like Pirlo.

“He deserves more respect in every way.

“Pirlo cannot be considered irreplaceable one day and the next ready for the scrapheap.”

We’ve absolutely the toughest group of all – Antonio Conte

Italy are currently top of Group H, two points ahead of Norway with two games remaining in the qualifiers. Conte highlighted the strength of his competitors in the group and insisted that qualification is still not guaranteed for the Azzurri.

“We have not qualified yet, so that has to be the primary focus until it is secured.

“We’ve absolutely the toughest group of all.

“We’ve managed to take 18 points in eight games and we still haven’t qualified.

“Anyone who thinks this is going to be easy has got it very wrong indeed.”