PALERMO, Sicily – Alberto Gilardino filled in well for the suspended Mario Balotelli as Italy beat Bulgaria 1-0 Friday to move within one win of qualifying for the World Cup with two matches to spare.
Gilardino put Italy ahead in the 38th minute with a header from close range following a delicately lifted cross from Antonio Candreva.
The Azzurri's position in Group B was also strengthened when Armenia stunned the Czech Republic 2-1 in Prague with a goal from Gevorg Ghazaryan in added time - handing the Czechs a major blow to their qualifying chances.
Also, Denmark won 2-1 at Malta with an own goal ending up being the decider.
Italy leads the group with 17 points and Bulgaria is next with 10. Armenia, the Czech Republic and Denmark have nine points each while Malta is last with three.
Italy can seal its ticket to next year's tournament in Brazil with a win over the Czechs on Tuesday in Turin.
''We're nearly there but it's still complicated because our physical condition isn't great,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. ''We'll try to recuperate as quickly as possible but it won't be easy, also because it's (the Czechs') last chance.''
The Azzurri have never qualified with two matches to spare, having left it to the final match seven times.
The Czechs, by contrast, are in danger of failure after Ghazaryan concluded a swift counterattack while the hosts were pressing for a winner.
Karlen Mkrtchyan had put Armenia ahead in the 31st against the run of play with an unstoppable left-foot drive from 25 meters to the top corner of Petr Cech's goal.
Czech captain Tomas Rosicky equalized in the 70th when his shot from outside the area was slightly deflected into the net by Varazdat Haroyan.
''We're in a complicated situation,'' Czech coach Michal Bilek said. ''We have three more games to play and have a theoretical chance (to qualify).''
In Malta, Leon Andreasen put Denmark ahead two minutes in, Clayton Failla equalized in the 38th and Ryan Camilleri's own goal handed the lead back to Denmark in the 53rd.
In nearby Sicily, Italy rarely threatened until Gilardino's goal and Aleksandar Tonev gave Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon some trouble with a long shot in the 20th.
It took a well-executed counter attack to break the match open and Gilardino's goal tied him with former Juventus great Roberto Bettega for 13th place on Italy's all-time scoring list with 19 goals each. Luigi Riva leads with 35.
The 31-year-old Gilardino celebrated by acting as if he were playing a violin, a display he puts on only for big goals.
Buffon preserved the lead with an improbable save on Ivelin Popov in the 48th, swiping away a close-range effort with his glove while airborne just as the ball was going to cross the line.
Buffon, who can match Fabio Cannavaro's record 136 caps Tuesday, produced another reflex save in the 62nd as Bulgaria began to assault Italy's goal, and Thiago Motta put himself in the way of the rebound.
''Gigi really saved us,'' Prandelli said.
Gilardino had a chance to make it 2-0 in the 73rd with Bulgaria goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov out of position but he couldn't get his shot off in time.
Still, Bulgaria pressed forward until the end and nearly equalized in added time when Veselin Minev headed just wide.
It was Bulgaria's first loss in qualifying, having drawn 2-2 with Italy in Sofia a year ago.