Italy aiming to qualify with 2 matches to spare
For all its success at the World Cup, four-time winner Italy has never qualified with two matches to spare.
Yet that's just what the Azzurri can do if they win their next two qualifiers - both at home - against Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Italy holds a four-point lead over Bulgaria atop Group B of European qualifying, with the Czechs five points back in third. Armenia and Denmark are next with six points each and Malta is last with three.
Italy hosts Bulgaria in Palermo on Friday, while the Czechs face Armenia in Prague and Denmark visits Malta.
Speculation is swirling that as soon as Italy qualifies, coach Cesare Prandelli will announce that he plans to leave the national team following the World Cup.
But nothing is certain yet.
''I'm focused on these matches,'' Prandelli said. ''Bulgaria is in good physical conditional and historically we have some problems in September. We've got to focus on winning these two matches before thinking about the World Cup.''
Making matters more complicated is that three key players - Mario Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo - are suspended for the Bulgaria match and two others - Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Barzagli - are injured and will miss both games.
And heat could be a factor in Palermo, the Sicilian capital.
The situation evokes that of Italy's match against Spain in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup in June. Balotelli was also unavailable for that match, which was played in extremely hot and humid conditions.
While Spain beat Italy on penalties after a 0-0 draw, Prandelli won praise as a master tactician as Italy ran right by the world and European champion for long stretches.
''We're going to have to do a good job of controlling the match with our quality in midfield and a lot of running on the flanks,'' Prandelli said, recalling how Bulgaria gave his squad trouble in a 2-2 draw in Sofia a year ago.
Like in the Spain match, Alberto Gilardino will likely replace Balotelli at the center of Italy's attack and Emanuele Giaccherini should be featured prominently in an attacking role on the wing.
Boosted by his strong performance at the Confederations Cup after a season where he often didn't start at Juventus, Giaccherini recently transferred to Sunderland in the English Premier League.
''The Confederations gained me more respect and a lot of confidence,'' Giaccherini said. ''I feel like I'm an important part of this squad.''
If Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon plays in both games, he'll match Fabio Cannavaro for Italy's appearance record and pick up his 136th cap on Tuesday in Turin, where he plays his club football with Juventus.
''I'm moderately worried, just like I am before all of these matches that are decisive for qualifying,'' Buffon said. ''We deserve it at this point for all that we've done but it's not done yet.''
When Italy won the 2006 World Cup, it qualified with one match to spare. But four years ago, Italy needed a 90th minute goal against Ireland to book a trip to South Africa.