Italy embracing Spain challenge in World Cup qualifying

Italy have embraced the challenge of playing Spain in World Cup qualifying after the draw in St Petersburg on Saturday.

Italy coach Antonio Conte hopes playing Spain in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will help his team improve and rise up the FIFA rankings.

Conte's men were placed with Spain, Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in Group G of UEFA's World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 on Saturday, and Italy's boss feels his side will rise to the occasion against Vicente del Bosque's team of champions.

Since taking over as Italy coach following Brazil 2014, Conte has led his country to five wins from 10 matches, although they are winless in four games this year.

"It is a tough group, however, I prefer to think that Spain could boost us," Conte said after the draw in St Petersburg.

"We have to face one of the best teams in the world. I am sure that we can do well and we can have good performances."

Having last tasted victory in a friendly against Albania in November last year, Italy started 2015 with three consecutive draws - against Bulgaria, England and Croatia - before losing 1-0 to Portugal in a friendly in June.

Those results leave Italy in 17th in FIFA's rankings.

Spain - world champions in 2010, plus European champions in 2008 and 2012 - will be favourites to progress automatically from Group G, although they have also suffered a downturn in form of late.

The then-holders were dumped from the 2014 World Cup in the group stages, while they have lost two of their past five matches.

"In theory, Italy and Spain are the favourite teams in the group," Conte said.

"However, Albania have started playing really well in the Euro qualifying, so they have chances to qualify.

"On paper, Italy and Spain are the best teams, however, it will be decided on the pitch."

Italy have not defeated Spain since 2011, while the Spaniards have won six of their past nine meetings stretching back to 2000.