Mario Balotelli scored both goals as Italy moved three points clear at the top of World Cup qualifying Group B with a hard-fought 2-0 win over Malta at the Ta' Qali Stadium on Tuesday.
The enigmatic forward opened the scoring from the spot just seven minutes in after AC Milan team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy had been sent tumbling in the area.
Malta could have responded in kind but Michael Mifsud saw his penalty well saved by Gianluigi Buffon, who had felled Andre Schembri in the area, and it proved a costly miss as Balotelli struck again right on the stroke of half-time to break the hosts' game resistance.
Malta had gone into the game without a home win in a competitive international for seven years, but for long stretches of a low-quality encounter they looked in no way inferior to a side positioned 142 places above them in the Fifa rankings, with Mifsud looking particularly menacing up front early on.
However, it was Italy who opened the scoring, Balotelli slotting home from the spot in characteristically cool fashion, after Luke Dimech had clumsily upended El Shaarawy just inside the area.
Italy’s Milanese front line very nearly combined for a second goal just moments later, El Shaarawy whipping a shot just wide after being put into space by the most sumptuous back-heeled lay-off from Balotelli.
As it was, Malta should have levelled matters 16 minutes in when Buffon took Schembri down as the attacker tried to round the Juventus shot-stopper. The Azzurri skipper avoided a red card as Schembri had been going away from the goal, and that proved crucial, with Buffon making amends for his error by parrying Mifsud’s well-struck but poorly directed spot-kick away to safety.
While Malta’s record goalscorer only had himself to blame for failing to convert from 12 yards out, he was desperately unfortunate to see a thunderous long-range effort crash against the crossbar with Buffon beaten all ends up.
Riccardo Montolivo then went close for Italy, lofting the ball onto the roof of the net after taking an El Shaarawy cross in his stride, but Malta were proving incredibly game opponents, and Clayton Failla called Buffon into action once more with a long-range free kick.
However, the hosts were rocked by the concession of a second goal right on the stroke of half-time that underlined the clear gulf in class in terms of finishing. Leonardo Bonucci played a sublime ball over the top that Mattia De Sciglio killed wonderfully well before laying the ball off for the supporting Balotelli, who calmly placed the ball past Justin Haber and into the far right corner.
Malta continued to cause Italy problems at the back after the restart, but they just could not score the goal that their endeavour deserved, with Alex Muscat dragging a shot just wide of Buffon's goal.
The Azzurri, by contrast, looked like scoring every time they strung a couple of passes together and Emanuele Giaccherini really should have put the result beyond all doubt just before the hour after being picked out in the area by Ignazio Abate, but the Juventus utility man saw his stabbed effort well saved by Haber.
In the end, it mattered not a jot as Italy ultimately cruised to a victory that affords them some breathing space at the top of Group B following Bulgaria's 1-1 draw with Denmark in Copenhagen earlier on Tuesday.
|Coach: P. Ghedin|
for C. Failla 82'
for M. Mifsud 88'
|Inter confirm Montoya capture|
|Murillo joins Inter, as Kuzmanovic and Obi depart|
|Falcao signing not a risk, says former Chelsea star|
|Deeney agrees new Watford deal|
|Confidence and service the key to Falcao success at Chelsea|
|No bids for ´Chelsea target´ Baba, claim Augsburg|
|Derby swoop for Ince|
|Fiorentina consider legal action over Salah ´no-show´|
|Chelsea the team to beat in the Premier League, says Neville|
|Storari exits Juve for Cagliari|
|UEFA removes FFP restrictions on Man City and PSG|
|West Brom hope for new owners within the month|
|Chelsea agree loan deal for Falcao|
|Kuyt eyes trophies on Feyenoord return|
|Chile v Argentina: History beckons ahead of Copa America final|
|Wallace extends Monaco loan|
|Mihajlovic wants to instill fear factor at Milan|
|Mignolet improving at Liverpool - Grobbelaar|
|Mumbai City name Anelka player-manager|
|Olivia the parrot predicts Japan to win Women´s World Cup|
|Lusitans coach blasts Bilic´s ´lack of respect´|
|Sakho eyes more Europa League wins|
|Gareca wants Peru to keep building|
|Chile ´no chance´ if Argentina produce their best - Diaz|
|Ocampos joins Marseille permanently|
|Europa League Review: Cloud-nine Brondby ignite opening round|
|West Ham 3 Lusitans 0: Sakho nets twice at start of Europa League journey|
|Holebas makes Watford move|
|Milan secure Adriano signing|
|Peru v Paraguay: Diaz counts cost of semi-final loss|
|Bastia hit out at reports of extra debt|
|Hernandez has successful surgery|
|Odemwingie signs one-year Stoke extension|
|Uth signs for Hoffenheim|
|Henen seals Everton return|
|Cattermole pens long-term Sunderland deal|
|United States v Guatemala: Klinsmann backs Dempsey ahead of Gold Cup warm-up|
|West Ham working on Jenkinson return - Gold|
|Milan agree deal for Bacca|
|Real buy back Vazquez from Espanyol|
|Richards leaves Swansea for Fulham|
|McShane signs for Reading|
|Giggs tells youngsters to seize US chance|
|Hammond pens Leicester extension|
|Only Schweinsteiger can decide Bayern future - Guardiola|
|Cech plans to play until he´s 40|
|Montoya arrives in Milan ahead of Inter move|
|Hernandez out of Gold Cup|
|US asks Switzerland to extradite seven FIFA officials|
|MLS Preview: Sounders seek momentum switch|
|Mexico 0 Honduras 0: Hernandez injury sours friendly|
|Hernandez taken to hospital|
|Garay in doubt for Copa America final|
|Wambach: USA peaking for World Cup final|
|Bassett ´an absolute hero´ despite own goal - Sampson|
|Japan 2 England 1: Late own goal breaks English hearts|
|Salvo quits as Valencia president|
|Costa not Ribery cover - Bayern director Sammer|
|Chile, Argentina deserve final spots - Mena|
|Ramos keen on United switch - Calderon|
|B36 1 The New Saints 2: Wilde leaves it late to secure advantage|
|Sevilla agree deal for Rami|
|Celtic snap up United teenager Janko|
|Beauvue passes Lyon medical|
|Roma bring in Falque|
|Coates completes permanent Sunderland switch|
|Vallecano to make charity donations from shirt sales|
|Angella commits to Watford|
|Gundogan pens new Dortmund deal|
|Juve reject €80million Barca offer for Pogba, says Marotta|
|Ruiz seals permanent Villarreal move|
|Mourinho respects Cech´s decision to quit Chelsea|
|Claridge excited by potential Pearson successors|
|Miranda completes Inter switch|
|Blind takes over as Netherlands coach|
|Mourinho: Premier League tougher to win than ever|
|Hamburg make Holtby move permanent|
|Southampton terminate Osvaldo contract|
|BREAKING NEWS: Swansea swoop for Eder|
|Abbiati extends Milan stay|
|Cruyff: Barcelona have lost their values|
|Vydra seals Watford move|
|Ambitious Clyne targets trophy haul with Liverpool|
|Claridge: Off-field incidents cost Pearson his job|
|Clyne becomes Liverpool´s sixth close-season signing|
|Imbula leaves Marseille for Porto|
|FIFA chief Blatter challenges critics to prove corruption claims|
|Distin joins Bournemouth|
|Bayern seal Costa deal|
|Arsenal confirm Diaby departure|
|Blatter to miss Women´s World Cup final|
|Bogdan sets sights on being Liverpool number one|
|Danilo eager to get started at Real Madrid|
|Leicester´s Wood joins Leeds|
|Porto confirm Atletico move for Martinez|
|Lloyd: Repetition key to netting penalty|
|Sheffield Wednesday job a ´dream´ for Carvalhal|
|´We played a complete game´ - Messi|
|Diaz upbeat despite heavy Copa loss to Argentina|
|Martino lauds Messi for selfless performance|
|Viviani makes surprise Verona switch|
|Estonian team wins cup match 31-0|
|No meeting with Arsenal has occurred - Vidal´s agent|
|United States 2 Germany 0: Ellis´ team reach World Cup final|
|Argentina 6 Paraguay 1: Messi leads Martino´s men to Copa final|
|UEFA Europa League Review: FK Zeljeznicar and FC Dacia Chisinau open with wins|
|UEFA Champions League Review: FC Pyunik make winning start|