Mario Balotelli extended his rich vein of form as he hit two goals to inspire the Group B leaders Italy to a 2-0 away win against a spirited Malta team at the Ta' Qali Stadium.

Italy strengthened their grip on top spot by moving on to 13 points from five games while Malta, who slumped to a 6-0 defeat in Bulgaria last Friday, remain bottom with no points from five outings.

Buoyed by his outstanding goal in the 2-2 friendly with Brazil on Thursday, Balotelli again delivered the goods for Italy, who survived two scares in the first half before applying the killer blow with a second goal in the dying moments of the opening half.

"We have to treasure the fact that when we come up against a well-organised team we have to be quicker with our play," Italy's coach, Cesare Prandelli, said. "But the great performance against Brazil and the three points tonight are paramount."

Balotelli gave Italy a sixth-minute lead with a well-taken penalty after the Maltese defender Luke Dimech floored Stephan El Shaarawy in the penalty area.

Despite conceding so early, Malta refused to lie down. Their bold reaction unsettled Prandelli's men whose struggles were laid bare when, on 16 minutes, the goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon brought down the Andre Schembri in the box after an intelligent pass from Roderick Briffa.

Michael Mifsud marched towards the spot but his low effort was stopped by Buffon. Malta's captain threatened to make amends in spectacular fashion minutes later when he sped past Leonardo Bonucci, but his screamer from distance cannoned off the crossbar after taking a slight deflection off Andrea Barzagli.

With the lively Schembri shadowing Andrea Pirlo, Italy's playmaker, and the Malta players pressing hard, Italy were knocked out of their stride as the hosts, spurred on by 17,000 fans, pressed for an equaliser.

Italy made them pay for their missed opportunities, though, as Balotelli volleyed past the goalkeeper Justin Haber on the stroke of half-time and after a surging run by the right-back Mattia De Sciglio.

The second half was less eventful as Italy were content to keep possession and protect their lead, with Malta only going close twice – through Alex Muscat and Mifsud.

The September match in Italy had also finished 2–0 to Prandelli's team.


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