Italy fought back to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 with Giorgio Chiellini and Mario Balotelli, sealing their place at the 2014 World Cup.
It was a very special night, as Gigi Buffon matched Fabio Cannavaro’s record of 136 caps and the Juventus Stadium in Turin hosted its first ever Azzurri match. It is also the first time Italy have ever qualified for a World Cup with two rounds to spare.
Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo returned from suspension, but Dani Osvaldo was benched in favour of Emanuele Giaccherini and Antonio Candreva with Daniele De Rossi in a three-man defence. Manuel Pasqual stepped straight into the starting XI aged 31 after he was called up on Saturday to replace the injured Luca Antonini and Ignazio Abate. It was his first appearance since November 2006. Ex-Lazio striker Libor Kozak led the way with Tomas Rosicky and Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.
A clearance was deflected on to Balotelli’s feet in the D, but Cech was crucial to palm it round the post. Christian Maggio then nodded wide from a corner, while Cech came tearing out to anticipate Balotelli on the edge of the box. A diving Balotelli header was acrobatically blocked in the six-yard area by Marek Suchy.
However, the Czech Republic took a shock lead when Petr Jiracek burst down the left and swept a ball across the face of goal for Kozak to volley in at full stretch. Kozak left Lazio on transfer deadline day for Aston Villa.
Italy switched to a four-man defence with Pasqual at left-back. Balotelli should’ve equalised on 24 minutes when Giaccherini’s chipped pass found him unmarked from six yards, but he went for power and smashed it against the crossbar.
Moments later the Milan striker missed another absolute sitter, as Cech spilled an Andrea Pirlo effort and Balotelli ballooned over from close range. SuperMario was then booked for treading on Tomas Sivok as they both went for the ball.
De Rossi chested down a long pass and rolled it across for Balotelli, but the move was halted by an incorrect offside flag. Balotelli got his head to a Pirlo cross and Cech did very well to parry from point-blank range.
The Czechs made a substitution before the break, as Rosicky went off for Daniel Kolar. Cech needed a fingertip save to deny Candreva’s angled drive, but from that corner Montolivo’s misplaced pass sparked a very dangerous counter-attack wasted by Kozak’s finish over the bar.
Having already scrapped the three-man defence after 20 minutes, Italy changed tactics again with Osvaldo replacing Giaccherini, but staying largely wide left in a 4-3-3.
Within 45 seconds of the restart Balotelli had blasted from distance to force a Cech save. The Azzurri notched up a series of corners and eventually made the most of them, as Cech missed the Candreva set-piece, allowing Giorgio Chiellini to nod in. It was the defender’s fourth Italy goal.
Italy’s tails were up and Balotelli anticipated Gebre Selassie, the clumsy attempt at a tackle leading to a penalty. SuperMario got up to convert coolly, sending Cech the wrong way to fire in at the near post, sweeping aside all the first half misses. It maintained his 100 per cent record in 20 competitive career penalties.
However, the Azzurri started giving the ball away repeatedly with Kolar’s pass flashing across the face of goal, Kozak’s shot deflected for a corner and Buffon smothering a Jiracek snapshot.
Balotelli moved to the left with Osvaldo in the centre-forward role, but Pasqual’s Italy comeback was ruined by a horrible head injury. He was on the end of Kozak’s elbow in mid-air and a very nasty cut left him bleeding heavily, so he made way for Angelo Ogbonna and the Aston Villa striker was booked.
Kolar received his second yellow card in the final minutes for bringing down Balotelli.
Italy 2-1 Czech Rep
Scorers: Kozak 19 (C), Chiellini 51 (I), Balotelli pen 54 (I)
Italy: Buffon; Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini; Maggio, Montolivo (Thiago Motta 86), Pirlo, Pasqual (Ogbonna 78); Candreva, Giaccherini (Osvaldo 46); Balotelli
Czech Republic: Cech; Gebre Selassie (Rabusic 77), Sivok, Suchy, Limbersky; Prochazka; Plasil, Darida (Vanek 56), Rosicky (Kolar 38); Jiracek, Kozak
Ref: Eriksson (SWE)
Sent off: Kolar 89 (C)