Italy Equal Non-Losing Streak Record but Fail to Break Bulgaria Wall

The first outing of the Azzurri as reigning European Champions was a lackluster affair, with Italy dominating the game at the Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence but ultimately held to a draw by Bulgaria in their fourth match of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers.

The good news is, by tying the game at the Artemio Franchi, Italy extended their non-losing streak to 35 games, equaling an all-time record set by Spain and Brazil. Should they avoid to lose their next test against Switzerland on Sunday night, they will become the undisputed holders of the record.

The Azzurri found an early lead via a beautiful Federico Chiesa finish but saw the visitors draw level from their only chance of the night. Tonight’s result – albeit a bit disappointing – doesn’t change much Roberto Mancini’s plans on the way to Qatar as the Azzurri are still comfortably at the top of the group and will have the chance to distance themselves further from the opposition with a win over the Swiss on Sunday.

For their first game after the Euro 2020 hangover, Mancini restarted with two changes from the winning XI at Wembley: Milan new joiner Alessandro Florenzi took Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s spot at right back, while Francesco Acerbi replaced Giorgio Chiellini in defense – the captain being rested in view of the next two qualifiers.

Oddly enough, this was the first game of the season for the Euro 2020 MVP Gianluigi Donnarumma, who’s currently benched by Keylor Navas at Paris Saint-Germain.

Bulgaria coach Yasen Petrov lined up his boys in a prudent 4-1-4-1 fashion. The plan was clear. Three players from the current Bulgaria roster play in Italy but two of them for Serie B clubs. Long gone are the days when the Eastern Europeans could challenge the Azzurri in a World Cup Semi-Final, like in 1994.

Italy’s start was a trailer of how the game was meant to go: The Azzurri kept the ball to themselves but lacked precision in the final third. On 12 minutes, Lorenzo Insigne went for a give-and-go with Ciro Immobile but his pass was deflected by a Bulgarian defender, setting the Neapolitan free to shot at the goal. His effort hit the side netting. Bulgaria replied with a shot from Kiril Despodov from outside the box that gave no real trouble to Donnarumma.

On 15 minutes, Federico Chiesa wrecked havoc on the Bulgarian defense, exchanged with Immobile and fired a clinical right-foot shot into the bottom left corner of the goal to steer the match in the right direction for the Azzurri.

Italy made the ball circulate, the Eastern Europeans barely saw it for most of the first half. Bulgaria did what they could to defend themselves and also risked a lot when a defensive blunder from Valentin Antov allowed Immobile to go for a shot, calling goalie Georgie Geogiev to action to defuse his challenge.

It seemed all easy for Italy but then, unexpected, came Bulgaria’s equalizer on 39 minutes, courtesy of a nice counterattack effort that ended with Despodov sprinting past Florenzi and serving Ascoli’s Atanas Iliev an easy chance to put the ball past Donnarumma.

Before the break, Insigne had a great chance to re-establish the gap but, after displaying some great ball control skills from a long range pass, saw his conclusion parried back by Georgiev.

Bulgaria’s defense continued to be shaky even after the restart as Immobile was soon gift-wrapped a mouth-watering chance, with the ball cleared by Petko Hristov right on the goal line. But, albeit hesitant, coach Petrov’s defensive lines got tighter minute by minute and the Azzurri struggled to find space.

When they did manage to open a breach, Georgiev continued to mount guard as he palmed away a Chiesa close-range effort on 62 minutes. Immediately after, Roberto Mancini came up with his first changes: Bryan Cristante came in for Nicolò Barella, while Rafael Toloi replaced an underperforming Florenzi. Mancini eventually also reshaped his front line, with Giacomo Raspadori and Domenico Berardi joining the ranks.

None of the coach’s efforts, however, managed to change the fate of this match-up. On 71 minutes, Marco Verratti picked up Immobile with a brilliant back heel pass, but the Lazio man’s left-foot effort was again saved by the brilliant Georgiev. That was the last real opportunity for the European Champions, whose late, chaotic assaults bore no fruit.

Nine corners to zero, 70% ball possession in favor of the Azzurri. The numbers speak for themselves about the match trend but what matters in the end is putting the ball into the back of the net. Mancini was well aware of that and that was his talking point in his post-match remarks to press.



September 2, 2021 – World Cup 2022 Qualifiers Group C

SCORERS: 16′ Chiesa (I), 39′ A. Iliev (B)

ITALY (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Emerson (91′ Pellegrini), Acerbi, Bonucci, Florenzi (63′ Toloi); Verratti, Jorginho, Barella (63′ Cristante); Insigne (74′ Berardi), Immobile (74′ Raspadori), Chiesa (Sirigu, Gollini, Chiellini, Bastoni, Biraghi, Bernardeschi, Castrovilli) Coach: R. Mancini
BULGARIA (4-4-2): Georgiev; A. Hristov, Antov, P. Hristov, Nedyalkov; Yomov (46′ Delev), Kostadinov, Vitanov (75′ Malinov), Yankov (57′ Chochev); Despodov (75′ Kirilov), A. Iliev (69′ Krastev) (Naumov, Mihaylov, Bozhikov, I.Iliev, D.Iliev, Velkovski, Turitsov) Coach: Petrov

REFEREE: Gozubuyuk (Netherlands)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Barella, Toloi (I), Yomov, Nedyalkov (B)