FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Newly-crowned European champion Italy was held to a disappointing 1-1 draw against Bulgaria on Thursday and lost its perfect start to World Cup qualifying but nevertheless matched a long-standing record.
Atanas Iliev cancelled out Federico Chiesa’s opener for Italy at the end of the first half. It was the first goal Italy had conceded in World Cup qualifying, where it had won its opening three matches.
The draw at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence nevertheless saw Italy match Spain’s record run of 35 matches unbeaten, set between 2007 and 2009.
“We should have been more clinical. We created many opportunities,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said. “It was one of those games where even if we had played for another half an hour the ball wouldn’t have gone in.
“They defended well, we did our best. They scored on a counterattack, that’s football.”
Italy remained top of Group C and moved four points ahead of second-place Switzerland, which has played two matches less.
The Azzurri play Switzerland in Basel on Sunday and then return to Italy to face Lithuania in Reggio Emilia three days later.
“If we had won it would have been better but Sunday is clearly an important match and we will have to win it,” Mancini said.
Lithuania is bottom of the group with zero points and lost 4-1 at home to Northern Ireland on Thursday.
Daniel Ballard, Conor Washington, Shayne Lavery and Paddy McNair scored for Northern Ireland, which moved above Bulgaria into third.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini had recalled all the fit players from his European Championship-winning squad for the three World Cup qualifiers and nine of the starting lineup against Bulgaria started the Euro 2020 final against England in July.
The Azzurri dominated from the start and took the lead in the 16th minute when Chiesa played a one-two with Ciro Immobile before firing into the bottom right corner.
Italy seemed fully in control and had several chances to extend its lead before Bulgaria leveled five minutes from halftime against the run of play. Kiril Despodov burst down the left before sending in a low pass for Iliev to sweep past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The Azzurri were almost immediately back in front but Bulgaria goalkeeper Georgi Georgiev denied Lorenzo Insigne.
Georgiev pulled off another superb save in the 62nd minute to stop Chiesa from doubling his tally after the Juventus winger carved out some space to shoot.
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