Soccer

Pelle leads Italy to 1-0 win over Malta again in qualifying

FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Graziano Pelle saved Italy from embarrassment against Malta again, securing a 1-0 win against the 160th-ranked opponent to put the Azzurri in command of their European Championship qualifying group on Thursday.

It appeared that Pelle used his shoulder or arm to redirect in a cross from Antonio Candreva in the 69th minute of a match that Italy dominated. But it wasn't clear if the goal should have been disallowed.

''When I re-watch it I'll be able to tell,'' Pelle said. ''If we had scored early it would have been a different match, but we struggled and now it's easy to say it was a tough game.''

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Pelle also scored in a 1-0 win at Malta in October.

''That's my job - to score,'' he said. ''It's never easy. Football is very balanced these days.''

Ten minutes earlier, Italy winger Manolo Gabbiadini banged a long shot off the corner of the goal frame.

Italy is level on 15 points atop Group H with Croatia, which was held to 0-0 in Azerbaijan and is likely to lose a point for fan trouble pending an appeal.

Norway, which won 1-0 at Bulgaria, is next with 13 points, followed by Bulgaria with eight, Azerbaijan with five, and Malta with one.

Vegard Forren scored his first international goal for Norway in the 57th with a volley.

In Azerbaijan, the closest either side came to scoring was a shot off the crossbar from Croatia's Ivan Perisic in the second half.

''Going to play against Azerbaijan and Malta is not easy,'' Italy coach Antonio Conte said. ''There are no more minnows in football.''

The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically for next year's tournament in France. The best third-placed team also qualifies automatically, and eight more teams can qualify through a playoff.

Before kickoff in Florence, a minute of silence was observed for the European migrant crisis.

Italy and Mediterranean neighbor Malta have been hard hit by the crisis, with a constant flow of migrants arriving in Italy, and Maltese forces helping out in the EU mission to rescue migrant boats in distress.

Conte used an offensive 4-3-3 lineup with Brazilian-born Eder and Gabbbiadini supporting Pelle in attack, and Andrea Pirlo directing in midfield.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon picked up his 149th cap, and the captain could hit the 150 mark against Bulgaria in Palermo on Sunday.

Malta, coached by Italy's Pietro Ghedin, responded with a highly defensive 5-3-2.

The Azzurri produced numerous chances in the first half, with Pelle, Marco Verratti, and Eder all coming close.

Malta's only real chance came from Nigerian-born Alfred Effiong, who's angled shot around Leonardo Bonucci drifted just wide in the first half.