Italy came from behind to beat the Czech Republic in Turin on Tuesday, 2-1, and book their place in Brazil for next year’s World Cup. Undefeated in qualifying heading into the contest, Italy went a goal behind to Libor Kozak’s first-half strike.
But the home side recovered to get the three points they needed to top Group B, courtesy of two goals in four minutes after the break, first from Giorgio Chiellini and then through a Mario Balotelli penalty. The victory was made even sweeter for Gianluigi Buffon at his club’s Juventus Stadium on a night when he made his 136th appearance for Italy to equal Fabio Cannavaro’s record.
Cesare Prandelli’s side now lead second-placed Bulgaria, who won away in Malta, by seven points with just two games remaining -- against Denmark and Malta. The Czechs, meanwhile, must now rely on other results going their way as well as beating Malta and Bulgaria on the road to reach the playoffs.
It appeared it might have been a very different story 19 minutes in. With Italy’s defense all at sea, Tomas Rosicky fed Petr Jiracek down the left, who produced a first time cross to the back post where new Aston Villa signing Kozak stretched and turned the ball beyond Buffon.
The Czechs always looked like facing a real challenge to hold onto that lead, however, as Italy dominated possession and repeatedly threatened Petr Cech’s goal. Early in the second half that pressure paid off.
Six minutes after the break, Andrea Pirlo swung in a corner from the right and Cech came and failed to meet it, allowing Chiellini to rise six yards out and head into the unguarded net. And the stage was then set for Balotelli, who had earlier struck the crossbar, to get the decisive goal.
The Milan striker, back after missing out through suspension against Bulgaria last Friday, was pulled down by Czech right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie in the box and a penalty was duly awarded. Balotelli, who never misses, didn’t here as he slotted the spot kick to Cech’s right with the Chelsea stopper making a halfhearted effort to go the other way.