Italy coach Antonio Conte has hit out at critics who have questioned midfielder Andrea Pirlo's form.

Pirlo was benched for Sunday's 1-0 European Qualifiers triumph over Bulgaria in Palermo having started in last week's 1-0 victory over Malta.

The 36-year-old, who has struggled to make an impact since joining MLS franchise New York City FC this summer after four seasons at Juventus, was criticized by the Italian press for his disappointing display against Malta.

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"What really disappoints me is the lack of respect from some towards an immense player like Pirlo," Conte said to Sky in Italy. "He deserves more respect in every way.

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

Pirlo considered retiring from international duty after the World Cup in Brazil last summer but Conte, who coached him at Juve, convinced the veteran midfielder to play on.

Sunday's outcome lifted Conte's men to the top of Group H, two points clear of nearest rivals Norway with two games remaining.

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