World Cup qualifier: Bulgaria 2 Italy 2
Italy were held to a 2-2 draw by Bulgaria in their opening 2014 World Cup qualifier after an absorbing Group B clash in Sofia.
Stanislav Manolev put the home side ahead with a long-distance drive that Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made a mess of, but it was a the visitors who led at the interval courtesy of Pablo Osvaldo's first goals in international football.
However, Bulgaria claimed a fully merited draw when Georgi Milanov struck midway through the second half of a game that really could have gone either way.
While Bulgaria lined out in a defensive-looking 4-5-1, Emil Gargorov actually ended up playing just in behind lone striker Ivelin Popov, and the hosts played their part in a surprisingly open and entertaining first half.
Lubo Penev's men were not only compact, and consequently comfortable, at the back in the early exchanges, restricting the Azzurri to nothing more than a tame header from Osvaldo, they also posed a serious threat on the counter-attack, as well as set pieces.
Indeed, they very nearly took the lead midway through the first half but Gianluigi Buffon reacted well to a Gargorov free-kick from wide on the right-hand side which eluded everyone in the area - and very nearly the Azzurri skipper too.
However, it was Buffon who was to blame for Italy falling behind on the half-hour mark, the Juventus ace being deceived by the bounce of the ball after Manolev had chanced his arm from all of 30 metres out.
Given the paucity of their performance up until that point, Italy appeared to be in a really tight spot. However, they had turned the game around by the interval, albeit in very scrappy fashion.
Osvaldo drew the visitors level after scuffing a shot past Nikolay Mihaylov, after Claudio Marchisio's knockdown had dropped for him in the area, via a slight deflection off Sebastian Giovinco.
The Roma man's second goal for his adopted nation was even more fortuitous, Osvaldo beating Mihaylov with a header that had come off his shoulder before then striking Ivan Ivanov to give the Bulgarian goalkeeper absolutely no chance.
Osvaldo could even have completed a hat-trick by the break but his best strike of the half was beaten away by Mihaylov. The save looked inconsequential, particularly with Italy looking a far more potent force at the start of the second period, with Giovinco bringing another good stop out of the home side’s keeper after collecting a tidy layoff from Osvaldo.
However, Bulgaria regained their composure and had already threatened Buffon's goal on a couple of occasions before they deservedly drew level on 66 minutes, with substitute Iliyan Mitsanski cutting the ball back for Milanov, who calmly controlled it before sweeping it past Buffon.
Both sides had chances to win it late, with Manolev and Osvaldo both seeing decent strikes well saved, but a draw was arguably the right result and Bulgaria and Italy will go into their respective clashes with Armenia and Malta next week on one point apiece.