Mario Balotelli was sent off, but Gigi Buffon’s heroics earned Italy a goalless draw in the Czech Republic.
The Azzurri welcomed back Andrea Barzagli and Stephan El Shaarawy from injury to start with Riccardo Montolivo in a trequartista role. The Czechs were without Matej Vydra, so Lazio’s Libor Kozak started. The World Cup qualifier was able to go ahead in Prague despite recent flooding.
Italy had only beaten the Czech Republic once, in the 2006 World Cup, along with a draw and two defeats. They were also without a victory in Prague since 1937.
Buffon performed an early save on Tomas Sivok’s header from a free kick, though he was offside anyway, and took the sting out of a Vladimir Darida snapshot.
Ignazio Abate risked an own goal on 10 minutes, as he dived in to anticipate Kozak and turned just wide of the empty net. From that corner, Petr Jiracek was sent clear and Buffon rushed off his line to smother at his feet.
Tomas Rosicky was left unmarked from another corner, but blasted well wide as Italy were under a great deal of early pressure. El Shaarawy’s pull-back from the by-line was just behind Balotelli, but then the hosts lost David Limbersky to injury, while Riccardo Montolivo’s second touch let him down one-on-one with Petr Cech.
Abate acrobatically cleared from Kozak in an intervention the Lazio striker thought was worthy of a penalty, but they had both flung themselves at the ball.
Buffon got down to block a long-range Kozak attempt, but the early Czech pressure subsided as the Azzurri began to gain more of a foothold in the game.
On the stroke of half-time Balotelli pounced on a defensive error and should’ve rolled across to the unmarked Montolivo, but instead tried to turn between two defenders and the chance went begging, much to his teammate’s frustration.
Sebastian Giovinco was a surprise introduction for the second half in place of El Shaarawy. Montolivo blasted a couple of efforts off target from distance, but the Czechs again threatened when Kozak sprung the offside trap to go one-on-one with Buffon, but the goalkeeper sprinted off his line and spread his frame to block the shot with his toe.
Abate dived into a tackle and failed to get the ball, so Kozak was able to aim from just inside the box and stung Buffon’s palms.
Balotelli was increasingly frustrated and received two yellow cards in the space of three minutes, one for a late tackle and another rather harsh booking for using his hands in a mid-air tussle with Gebre Selassie. The Milan striker was furious and repeatedly punched and kicked the walls as he went down the tunnel. It was his first dismissal since Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City on April 8 2012.
Italy again struggled from set pieces, as a free kick found Jiracek at the back post and he was only able to volley it on to the upright from point-blank range. In stoppages Gebre Selassie went down in the box, but the referee waved play on, and as the move continued Daniel Kolar drilled just wide.
Czech Republic 0-0 Italy
Czech Republic: Cech; Gebre Selassie, Sivok, Kadlec, Limbersky (Suchy 20); Darida (V Kadlec 75), Hubschman; Jiracek (Kolar 86), Rosicky, Plasil; Kozak
Italy: Buffon; Abate, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Marchisio, Pirlo (Aquilani 77), De Rossi; Montolivo; El Shaarawy (Giovinco 46), Balotelli
Ref: Moen (NOR)
Sent off: Balotelli 72 (I)