Italy won again, upending Bulgaria thanks to a sixth-minute penalty, and doing what they had to in order to secure three crucial points after taking the lead. Gianluigi Buffon celebrated his 150th Italy cap with a clean sheet, and Daniele De Rossi played both hero and goat on the day.
The match started out with Italy playing delightful, aggressive football, attacking Bulgaria's defense relentlessly and almost scoring on their very first possession. It was no surprise, then, when one of those attacks lead to a desperate Bulgaria defender giving up a penalty when Antonio Candreva came from behind him to try to snag a loose ball in the box.
Daniele De Rossi stepped up and calmly tapped home his shot from the spot, but Italy's celebration was cut short when the referee called for it to be retaken after two of De Rossi's teammates had run into the box early. Bulgaria's keeper read which side De Rossi was going for this time, but the Roma midfielder pushed his shot closer to the post out of reach, and Italy had a 1-0 lead.
After that, though, the scintillating football went away. Make no mistake, Italy were the better team and had several more good scoring chances, but that ruthless aggression and edge that they showed in the first four minutes before Candreva was hacked down simply disappeared.
The match slowly became more and more stagnant, and when De Rossi was sent off early in the second half for kicking out at a Bulgaria player who had just fouled him -- who was also sent off despite no obvious red card foul -- it quickly became obvious that Italy were happy to sit on a 1-0 lead, attacking only enough to keep Bulgaria from building much momentum. Even the three attacking substitutions seemed to be more about getting tired legs off the pitch than an actual aggressive gameplan.
While Italy on a whole were fairly flat and uninteresting, the match did have one surprising standout: Stephan El Shaarawy. The former Milan forward who now plies his trade with Monaco in France was a surprise start that drew a number of groans from Italy fans, but he was lively and dangerous for almost all of his time on the pitch. He's had a bright start to his time in Ligue 1, so perhaps if he can finally stay healthy, il Faranoe can finally make the impact for the national team many have been hoping for from him for years.
While Italy's international break was dull as can be despite the positive European Championship qualifying results, it does have one definite benefit -- thanks to two wins and Croatia's struggles, Italy are now on top of Group H with just two matches to go. They stand on 18 points, two clear of new second-place side Norway, who upset a suddenly-slumping Croatia 2-0 to leapfrog them in the standings. Italy still have to get at least a win and a draw against Azerbaijan and Norway in October to absolutely guarantee themselves a place in Euro 2016 in France, but their place in that tournament is looking a lot more certain than it did just a few days ago.
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, De Sciglio; De Rossi (red 55'), Verratti, Parolo; Candreva (Eder 86'), Pelle (Zaza 71'), El Shaarawy (Florenzi 73')
Goal: De Rossi (pen. 6')
Bulgaria: Mitrev; V. Minev, A. Aleksandrov, Bodurov, Y. Minev (Bandalovski 64'); Nedelev (M. Aleksandrov 67'), Dyakov, Chochev, Milanov; Popov (Rangelov 71'); Mitsanski (red 56')