PALERMO, Italy (AFP) - Italy survived a nervy second half in an unconvincing 1-0 win over Bulgaria in Palermo to edge closer to 2014 World Cup qualification after extending their lead in Group B to seven points on Friday.
Injuries and the suspension of three players, notably AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, forced Italy coach Cesare Prandelli to opt for a makeshift 4-3-2-1 formation with Alberto Gilardino deployed as the lone striker.
Prandelli's tactic ultimately paid off with Gilardino heading home from Antonio Candreva's cross late in the first half.
But the striker was one of several Auzzurri who were left lamenting spurned chances in the first half, especially when Bulgaria, who held Italy to a 2-2 draw in Sofia a year ago, came fighting back after the interval.
And, at times it was a jagged performance from the four-time champions and will serve to remind Prandelli that he has yet to really find the model team ahead of next summer's showpiece.
Prandelli applauded the performance of all his players but had a special word for Gianluigi Buffon, who picked up his 135th cap to move one closer to equalling the all-time record of 136 held by retired Fabio Cannavaro.
"Gigi saved the game for us, he was extraordinary," said Prandelli. "All the boys were great, they left everything out on the pitch."
Bulgaria created chances early but both Todor Nedelev and Aleksandar Tonev failed to beat Buffon.
After both Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Insigne tested Bulgaria 'keeper Nikolay Mihaylov as Italy tested Bulgaria's defence on both flanks, the ever-threatening Antonio Candreva created the opener.
He toyed with the Bulgarian defence on the left of the area before delivering an inch-perfect cross for Gilardino to head past Mihaylov in the 38th minute.
Italy spurned the chance to double their lead a minute later when Mihaylov palmed away a promising angled drive from left-back Luca Antonelli.
Bulgaria came close on several occasions after the interval with Buffon forced to parry from Ivelin Popov on 48 minutes following Nedelev's cross.
Bulgaria coach Luboslav Penev made two changes, with Georgi Iliev replacing Stanislav Manolev and Tonev making way for Dimitar Rangelov minutes later.
Italy then survived a veritable onslaught on the hour mark as Buffon first saved at his near post from a corner before another effort from a following corner came off the face of one Italian defender with Buffon called into action again.
Giaccherini replaced Insigne in the 64th minute and after he was hauled down Mihaylov had to react quickly to palm away Pirlo's goalbound free-kick.
Gilardino's doggedness then almost paid off when he dispossessed Yordan Minev as Mihaylov waited to collect, but saw his on-target effort blocked by the defender's leg.
It was virtually Italy's last chance for a second goal as Bulgaria battled in the remaining 20 minutes in a bid to keep their qualification hopes afloat.
The visitors were agonisingly denied in the final minute of injury time when Minev saw his near-post header from a long cross come off Buffon and the side-netting.
Four-time champions Italy can secure qualification for the World Cup on Tuesday if they draw against the Czech Republic, who were stunned 2-1 at home by Armenia.
Prandelli added: "We're one step away (from the World Cup) but right now it's not easy because none of the players are in optimal condition.
"But when we were able to combine quality and pace, we produced some good football."