ROME (AP) — For all its success at the World Cup, four-time winner Italy has never qualified with two matches to spare.
Yet that's just what the Azzurri can do if they win their next two qualifiers — both at home — against Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Italy holds a four-point lead over Bulgaria atop Group B of European qualifying, with the Czechs five points back in third. Armenia and Denmark are next with six points each and Malta is last with three.
Italy hosts Bulgaria in Palermo on Friday, while the Czechs face Armenia in Prague and Denmark visits Malta.
Speculation is swirling that as soon as Italy qualifies, coach Cesare Prandelli will announce that he plans to leave the national team following the World Cup.
But nothing is certain yet.
"I'm focused on these matches," Prandelli said. "Bulgaria is in good physical conditional and historically we have some problems in September. We've got to focus on winning these two matches before thinking about the World Cup."
Making matters more complicated is that three key players — Mario Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Riccardo Montolivo — are suspended for the Bulgaria match and two others — Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Barzagli — are injured and will miss both games.
And heat could be a factor in Palermo, the Sicilian capital.
The situation evokes that of Italy's match against Spain in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup in June. Balotelli was also unavailable for that match, which was played in extremely hot and humid conditions.
While Spain beat Italy on penalties after a 0-0 draw, Prandelli won praise as a master tactician as Italy ran right by the world and European champion for long stretches.