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Balotelli brace helps Italy stymie Malta

Mario Balotelli scored twice as Italy overcame a shaky start to beat Malta 2-0 on Tuesday, extending the Azzurri's lead at the top of their World Cup qualifying group.

Balotelli put Italy ahead with a penalty after seven minutes at Ta'Qali National Stadium and doubled the lead in the 45th, taking his tally to 10 goals in nine matches this year for club and country.

Balotelli also scored the equalizer in a comeback 2-2 draw with Brazil in a friendly last week, and he has seven goals in six matches with AC Milan since transferring back to Italy from Manchester City in January.

"It definitely wasn't one of our best matches," said midfielder Riccardo Montolivo, a teammate of Balotelli's at Milan. "But we have a star up front and he decided the match today. Mario is also making an incredible impact with Milan. Let's hope he keeps it up."

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon marked his 126th appearance for Italy — matching Paolo Maldini for second all-time behind Fabio Cannavaro's record 136 caps — by saving a penalty from Malta captain Michael Mifsud in the 16th minute.

Mifsud also hit the crossbar with a long shot in the 19th.

Undefeated in qualifying, European Championship runner-up Italy leads Group B with 13 points, three ahead of Bulgaria, which drew 1-1 in Denmark. The Czech Republic is next with eight points after a 3-0 win at Armenia. Malta is last with zero.

"The important thing was to win," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "But we need to be quicker developing our game when we come up against closed squads like this."

Still, Italy has now won all six of its meetings with Malta.

Prandelli began with six Juventus and five AC Milan players in its lineup and it was Milan striker Stephan El Shaarawy who earned the penalty early on.

Balotelli, El Shaarawy's new strike partner at Milan, cooly converted the spot kick to improve to 13 for 13 in penalties for club and country over his career.

However, Italy was still unorganized and Buffon tripped Andre Schembri as the hosts threatened, leading to Mifsud's penalty, which Buffon dove to his right to block.

Malta kept coming forward and Mifsud dribbled by defender Leonardo Bonucci with ease before launching a long shot off the crossbar.

As the match settled down, Italy began to take control and Balotelli took a pass from Milan teammate Mattia Di Sciglio before shooting in from just beyond the box shortly before halftime.

Di Sciglio, who made his first start last week vs. Brazil, has been a pleasant surprise at left back.

It was Balotelli's eighth goal in 19 appearances for Italy and his second two-goal performance after also accounting for both goals in a memorable 2-1 semifinal win over Germany at Euro 2012.

Before the match, reserve goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis announced this would be his final match with Italy. The Napoli player was celebrating his 36th birthday.

After a friendly with San Marino on June 1, Italy's next qualifier is at the Czech Republic on June 7, after which the Azzurri will depart for the Confederations Cup in Brazil.

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