Italy vs Bulgaria, 2014 World Cup qualifying: Preview and TV schedule

Claudio Villa

Two unbeaten sides clash in Palermo on Friday evening, with the hosts holding a four point advantage over their East European visitors.

Victory will put the Azzurri on the brink of a place in next year's finals, while a Bulgaria win will blow Group B wide open.

Bulgaria have drawn four of their six qualifiers thus far and haven't played a competitive game since March. Although they defeated Japan 2-0 and Kazakhstan 2-1 in friendlies, Macedonia sprung a 2-0 surprise in their most recent outing last month. Bulgaria's domestic season did start a few weeks prior to Italy's, but despite the new Serie A campaign still in its infancy, Cesare Prandelli's side are fresh off this summer's Confederations Cup, where they finished third after defeating Uruguay in a penalty shootout. However, they did fall to a 2-1 friendly defeat to Argentina in Rome last month. Four victories and two draws have put Italy in the Group B driving seat. Both sides will have three qualifying games remaining after Friday's match.

The reverse fixture finished 2-2 this time last year. Pablo Daniel Osvaldo was Italy's two goal hero on that night, but he is suspended for this game along with AC Milan pair Riccardo Montolivo and Mario Balotelli. The trio are all eligible for the game with Czech Republic on Tuesday evening in Turin. Meanwhile, defender Andrea Barzagli has pulled out of the squad with injury.

Gianluigi Buffon is two games off equalling the all-time appearance record. The veteran goalkeeper is currently on 134 caps, having served his country for over 15 years.

The Italian side is expected to line up with a 4-3-2-1 formation, with wingers Antonio Candreva and Emanuele Giaccherini supporting lone striker Alberto Gilardino.

Prandelli has remained tight-lipped over rumours that he is set to step down from his position after next year's finals, instead wanting to focus on the rest of the qualifying campaign. This hasn't stopped the rumour mill from speculating that everyone from Roberto Mancini to Fabio Cannavaro is tipped to take over the reins.

Bulgaria boss Lyuboslav Penev has no such distractions and brings a 21 man squad with him to Sicily. Luzern striker Dimitar Rangelov has been recalled for the first time since last November. Former Serie A striker Valeri Bojinov has been dropped.

PSV Eindhoven's Stanislav Manolev and Aston Villa's Aleksandar Tonev currently have three qualifying goals apiece, while Balotelli and Osvaldo have notched half of Italy's 12 qualifying goals between them.

Bulgaria have never defeated the Italians on home soil. The Azzurri previously defeated their Balkan counterparts en route to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. You have to go all the way back to a friendly in 1991 for the last Bulgarian victory over the Italians.

Match date/time: Friday, 8:45 p.m. local, 2:45 p.m. ET

Venue: Renzo Barbera, Palermo, Italy

TV: RAI Internazionale (U.S.)

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