Italy keep lead in their group with draw at Bulgaria

World champions Italy drew 0-0 at Bulgaria Saturday to keep the lead in their World Cup qualifying group, reported dpa.

The Azzurri have seven points from three games in Group 8, leading Ireland who have four points but played two games, while Bulgaria have two from as many games. Earlier Saturday, Georgia and Cyprus drew 1-1, each notching their first point in the group.

At the brimming Levski Stadium, Italy prevailed slightly on ball possession in a fairly uneventful first half during which there were no valuable feeds for star striker and Bulgaria's captain Dimitar Berbatov.

The world champions created only a couple of spurts through Alberto Gilardino, while Gennaro Gattuso on 25 minutes had a long-range shot deflected by a defender and Gianluca Zambrotta attempted a high drive shortly before the break.

The hosts continued with their tactics of awaiting Italy's attacks and trying to hit back with counter-attacks often led by the fast Martin Petrov.

Home midfielder Blagoy Georgiev fired wide before Italy's debutant Simone Pepe on 66 minutes fired a swerving but central free kick.

Giuseppe Rossi, also a newcomer with the Azzurri, replaced Antonio Di Natale up front.

Rossi, a short and fast striker from Villareal, on 72 minutes had the best of Zhivko Milanov and fed a good ball into the area for Gilardino, who found no room for a telling shot as two defenders blocked him inside the goal area.

Bayern Munich's Luca Toni came on for Gilardino on 74 minutes, but failed to end a barren patch with the Azzurri that has lasted for more than 600 minutes.

A Daniele De Rossi drive flew high above Dimitar Ivankov, while midfielder Chavdar Yanko forced a drive from Marco Amelia with three minutes left, shortly before a De Rossi free kick flew wide by a hairsbreadth.

"We played a good game, we were authoritative and showed our personality," Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. "We tried to win but (Bulgaria) have great players. So I liked the result and the way we played."

As both sides displayed good fair play, local police intervened before the game to curb a group of Italian and Bulgarian fans who threatened to clash and chanted fascist slogans.

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