Italy made it 35 games undefeated to equal the European record run set by Spain but were ultimately disappointed as they were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw by Bulgaria in their Group C World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
In their first match since winning the European Championship in July, Federico Chiesa wasted no time in putting Italy ahead, arrowing home a fine finish with 16 minutes on the clock.
However, Atanas Iliev struck an equalizer against the run of play five minutes before the break, the first goal Italy have conceded in their World Cup qualifying campaign to date.
It was one-way traffic in the second half as the home side went in search of a winner but, apart from Ciro Immobile’s effort from a tight angle that was cleared off the line, Roberto Mancini’s side did not look like scoring again.
Despite the draw, Italy stays in a strong position to reach next year’s World Cup in Qatar, sitting top of the group on 10 points from four matches, four points clear of Switzerland in second albeit having played two games more.
“We had opportunities to win, we were too hasty and a bit wasteful in possession,” Italy captain Leonardo Bonucci told Rai Sport. “We wanted to celebrate the new start with a victory in front of our fans.”
Fifty-three days after their Euro 2020 triumph over England, Italy started with nine of the players who took to the field on that famous night at Wembley and showed no sign of letting up versus Bulgaria as Chiesa stroked them in front early on.
The livewire forward played a neat one-two with Immobile before finding the bottom corner, and Italy stayed in the ascendancy following their breakthrough.
The Azzurri looked on course to equal the record set by Spain from 2007-09 in style, with only Brazil between 1993-96 having a longer unbeaten run, of 36 matches, but Iliev silenced the crowd with Bulgaria’s only real attack of the half.
A second-half onslaught was expected from the European champions but it never came. They did have 27 shots in total, but could not create that killer chance as the visitors dug in for a well-earned point.
Italy face Switzerland on Sunday in Basel, while Bulgaria host Lithuania.
“We came here, the first game after the European Championship, and you want to win it, but I can’t say anything bad about the performance, just to be more clinical in front of goal,” Mancini said. “We would have preferred to reach 35 with a win, but now the most important thing is to recover our strength for Sunday, which is now an important game.”