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World champs Italy step up title defense

  • Story Highlights
  • World champions Italy open two-point gap in World Cup qualifying Group Eight
  • Italy score 2-0 victory in Montenegro while Republic of Ireland held by Bulgaria
  • Franck Ribery gives France a 1-0 win over Lithuania in Kaunas in Group Seven
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(CNN) -- World champions Italy opened a two-point gap in World Cup qualifying Group Eight ahead of Wednesday's home clash against nearest challengers Republic of Ireland in Bari.

Andrea Pirlo playing for AC Milan.

Andrea Pirlo playing for AC Milan.

While the Republic suffered its first real setback with a 1-1 home draw against Bulgaria, the Italians eased to a 2-0 victory over Montenegro that leaves thyem firmly on course to defend their title in South Africa next year.

Andrea Pirlo put the Italians on course with an 11th minute penalty awarded when his cross was handled by 31-year-old defender Radoslav Batak who was booked.

Italy had lost Antonio Di Natale on seven minutes when he fell awkwardly and immediately signalled to the bench that he couldn't continue with what looked to be a twisted knee.

Italy had a great break five minutes into the second half but Simone Pepe dallied when his Udinese team-mate Fabio Quagliarella was free and eventually teed up Vincenzo Iaquinta, who screwed his shot wide.

Goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic, who once played at Lecce, later spread himself to deny Italy substitute Giampaolo Pazzini when he was put clean through by Daniele De Rossi.

On 74 minutes two subs combined to clinch victory for Italy as Pepe squared for Pazzini to head home powerfully from eight yards following a counter-attack.

Kevin Kilbane's own goal handed Bulgaria a World Cup lifeline as the Republic of Ireland's charge faltered in Dublin.

Giovanni Trapattoni's men looked to be heading for a fourth victory in five qualifiers after Richard Dunne headed them in front after just 40 seconds.

But with a crowd of 60,002 roaring them on at Croke Park, Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady were denied by goalkeeper Dimitar Ivankov in quick succession - and Ireland were made to pay when Kilbane diverted Stiliyan Petrov's 74th-minute cross into his own net.

Ireland remain seven points clear of the Bulgarians, who have played a game fewer.

France got their World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign back on track as Franck Ribery's superb strike secured a 1-0 Group Seven win over Lithuania in Kaunas.

Bayern Munich midfielder Ribery rifled home from some 20 yards after 75 minutes to earn his side a welcome win on the road to South Africa.

The result eases the pressure on coach Raymond Domenech, who had overseen a lackluster start to France's qualifying campaign in which they had won just one of their opening three matches.

Les Bleus remain third in their group, two points behind Lithuania and five behind Serbia -- who won 3-2 in Romania -- but with a game in hand on both.

"It was very important for us tonight and everyone played a huge part," Ribery told media. "We worked hard, on a pitch that wasn't easy to play on. Together we've managed to do something. Now it's up to us to carry it on."

The sides meet again in Paris on Wednesday.

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