Prepare your passport and travel itinerary, the Azzurri are headed to Brazil! Cesare Prandelli confirmed himself the Qualification King by taking Italy through to the World Cup with two games to spare, a first for the Nazionale. It’s a feat he also achieved in qualifying for Poland and Ukraine.
Aside from qualification and that nugget of history, the night will be remembered for Gianluigi Buffon’s record-equalling 136th cap. He now sits alongside Fabio Cannavaro as the most capped player in Italy history. To do it at his home stadium and against the country of his wife Alena made it all the more special.
There would be no Superman-esque saves like those jaw-droppers against Bulgaria required, although a swift counter-attack and cool finish from former Lazio striker Libor Kozak stunned the home side and gave the Czechs the lead against the run of play. Just as they proved in the scoreless draw back in June, Michal Bilek’s side would give Italy a fight.
Prandelli said the choice of 3-4-2-1 formation was designed to reduce vulnerability to counter attacks. While Italy were caught out for the opener, their record-maker had little else to worry about throughout, in contrast to that pre-Confederations Cup qualifier. The Czechs recognised Italy’s desire to build from the back – especially with Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo stationed deep – and pressed high. It led to a rushed pass and collective gasp here and there, but there would be no milestone-ruining incident.
Italy played well enough to merit an advantage. Prandelli said he saw a ‘great Italy’. Nonetheless, it took a miscalculation to draw level. Petr Cech completely flapped at an Antonio Candreva corner and Giorgio Chiellini gratefully headed his fourth international goal into an unguarded net. It was the moment Italy needed.
Up until then it looked like the sort of evening fans inside the Juventus Stadium had become accustomed to over the previous two seasons – domination and toil for minimal reward. Mario Balotelli missed two first-half sitters in quick succession, smashing an effort from six yards on to the crossbar, and then ballooning over after a Cech spill. Yet like the regular occupants of the stadium, the Azzurri got their reward and forged ahead.
A clumsy Gebre Selassie challenge then brought Super Mario to the penalty spot, where he continued his perfect record for club and country. He sent Cech the wrong way to put Italy ahead just three minutes after Chiellini’s equaliser.
Prandelli said he was not worried despite Balotelli’s first-half misses: “I didn’t think anything, as in those moments a striker can miss. It’s a split second. I told him to stay calm, as he was doing very well.”
For Balotelli, it continued a fine scoring run. Since his goal against the Republic of Ireland at Euro 2012 – before that he had scored once in 10 appearances – the Milan striker has played a pivotal role for the Azzurri. The Irish strike was the first of 10 goals in 16 matches, all the while showing his ability to be the focal point in attack.
With 11 international goals in 26 appearances, and still only 23, Balotelli could well enjoy a prosperous Azzurri career in front of goal. It also poses the question – can he surpass Luigi Riva? The legendary striker holds Italy’s all-time scoring record, grabbing 35 goals in just 42 games. A feared striker with a thunderbolt of a left foot, Riva was part of the 1968 European Championship winning side and a runner-up in Mexico two years later.
He surpassed the mark set by Giuseppe Meazza, the iconic figure who netted 33 goals. Meazza famously quipped: “Well done Riva. He scored a lot against Cyprus and Turkey. My goals were more important.” Meazza held the record for 38 years. Riva has claimed possession since 1973. Despite a host of great strikers since, nobody has been able to reach the Cagliari idol. Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero were the closest with 27 goals apiece.
There may not be any snipes from Riva should Balotelli emulate his feat given their past together as part of the Azzurri set-up, but as Mario acknowledged in June, it will be a hard number to pass. “Riva’s 35 strikes are a lot, especially when you consider how few games you have at your disposal internationally. I’ll certainly try to overtake that tally, but it will be extremely difficult for me to do so.” The upcoming year shall provide Balotelli with more opportunities to inch ever-closer.
After a week of graft mixed with panache, Italy achieved their ultimate aim of qualification. They were even able to celebrate a milestone or two along the way. Now is the time for Prandelli and company to prepare the road to Rio.