By Associated Press - Monday, October 13, 2014

TA’ QALI, Malta (AP) - Italy labored to a 1-0 win at tiny Malta and Croatia crushed Azerbaijan 6-0 Monday as both squads remained perfect atop Group H of European Championship qualifying.

Southampton forward Graziano Pelle scored on his international debut with Italy, taking advantage of a loose ball inside the box following a corner in the 23rd minute.

Italy also hit the goal frame four times.

Both Malta and Italy ended with 10 men. Malta captain Michael Mifsud was shown a controversial direct red card for a foul on Alessandro Florenzi in the 27th even though replays showed there was hardly any foul at all.

Still, the 155th-ranked island nation put up stiff defensive resistance the rest of the way and Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci was sent off for a last-man foul on Andre Schembri in the 73rd.

Bonucci will have to sit out against Croatia on Nov. 16 in Milan.

In Croatia, Ivan Perisic scored twice and Andrej Kramaric, Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric also added goals. Plus, there was an own goal from Rashad Sadygov

Also, Norway beat Bulgaria 2-1 with goals from Tarik Elyounoussi and Havard Nielsen.

Croatia and Italy lead with nine points each, Norway has six, Bulgaria three and Malta and Azerbaijan zero.

“Having points in the table should give us confidence,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. “We won but we could have been more decisive in front of the goal. There’s margin for improvement.”

Italy has won all four of its matches - including a friendly against the Netherlands - under Conte, who is yet to call up Mario Balotelli.

“We need to improve and we can improve,” Conte said. “But four wins give us confidence.”

The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically. The best third-placed team also qualifies automatically, and the other eight can qualify through a playoff.

Italy also struggled somewhat against Malta in their last two meetings, needing an injury-time goal to close out a 2-0 win in 2012 and saving a penalty in a win by the same score last year - both in World Cup qualifying.

This match was similar, and Malta nearly went ahead when Clayton Failla shot wide in the 15th.

That threat seemed to wake up the Azzurri, though, and Pelle and Giorgio Chiellini hit the crossbar and goal frame seconds apart in the 18th.

Then came Pelle’s score.

The 29-year-old Pelle also has five goals in eight matches for Southampton this season and, at 1.94 meters (6-foot-4), gives Conte a physical presence inside the area.

Last season, Pelle scored 23 goals in 28 matches for Feyenoord in the Dutch league but was ignored by then-Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who resigned after the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the World Cup.

Antonio Candreva and substitute Sebastian Giovinco hit the goal frame in the second half.

The Azzurri sorely missed midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who was rested.

Malta is managed by Pietro Ghedin, an Italian who was formerly an assistant coach with Italy.

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