Football: Italy overcome scare to stamp World Cup ticket

Italy's players celebrate at the end the Fifa World Cup Qualifying group match Italy Vs Czech Republic on Sept 10, 2013 at Juventus Stadium in Turin. Four-time champions Italy secured qualification for the 2014 World Cup after overturning a first-hal
Italy's players celebrate at the end the Fifa World Cup Qualifying group match Italy Vs Czech Republic on Sept 10, 2013 at Juventus Stadium in Turin. Four-time champions Italy secured qualification for the 2014 World Cup after overturning a first-half deficit against the Czech Republic to prevail 2-1 on Tuesday. -- PHOTO: AFP

TURIN, Italy (AFP) - Four-time champions Italy secured qualification for the 2014 World Cup after overturning a first-half deficit against the Czech Republic to prevail 2-1 on Tuesday.

AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli scored the decisive goal from the penalty spot in the 54th minute after Giorgio Chiellini's header two minutes earlier had levelled Libor Kozak's superb opener for Michal Bilak's visitors, who finished the game with 10 men.

Balotelli, loved and hated in equal measure by Italy's fans, had finished the first half with arguably more detractors added to his list before making amends just before the hour mark.

For Prandelli, Italy's qualification for their 18th World Cup, was down to the efforts of his "quality" squad. "We've qualified and we're really satisfied," said Prandelli, who last week was reported to have decided to step down after next summer's showpiece.

"Tonight there were spells in which we suffered physically but we also played some quality football. This squad has a lot of quality." With Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon equalling Fabio Cannavaro's all-time national record of 136 caps, there was a party atmosphere at his home Juventus stadium.

But a reality check came in the 19th minute when Kozak sent a superb first-time half-volley past Buffon after Petr Jiracek ran unchallenged down the left flank to whip in a perfect cross for the big striker.

In the end, it wasn't enough for Bilak's men.

Having suffered three defeats, including a shock 2-1 home reverse to Armenia on Friday, the Czechs are now four points behind second-placed Bulgaria with two games remaining.

Although still mathematically in contention, Bilak believes their World Cup dream is over.

"We made two big mistakes and were punished from a corner and a penalty.

Now we've got virtually no chance of qualifying," said Bilak.

"The three defeats have been decisive for us." Italy's unexpected half-time deficit was more surprising given their early domination, and Balotelli's failure to convert several clear-cut chances.

The AC Milan forward collected Marek Suchy's poor clearance after Christian Maggio's timely intervention, but saw his strike from 20 yards parried by an alert Petr Cech.

Five minutes later Balotelli hit the crossbar from six yards out and then skied another effort after snatching a rebound from the hands of Cech six yards out.

The 23-year-old appeared to vent his frustration by stamping on defender Tomas Sivok on the half hour, and was promptly cautioned.

And he missed another golden chance to draw Italy level, but this time the hands of Cech were a match for the striker's close-range header following Andrea Pirlo's superb cross-field ball to the back post.

Italy were lucky not to concede a second as David Limbersky's dummy from a cross deep on the right allowed Kozak a first-time shot which sailed just over Buffon's crossbar on the stroke of half-time.

Prandelli kept faith with Balotelli for the second half, having replaced deep-lying forward Emanuele Giaccherini with Southampton's Pablo Osvaldo and seconds after kick-off he tested Cech with a long-range effort.

Moments later Italy levelled, Juventus defender Chiellini rising to meet Candreva's corner to score in his home stadium.

The Azzurri took a huge stride towards Brazil when Balotelli won a penalty following a crude challenge by Theodor Gebre Selassie and promptly stepped up to coolly beat Cech at the keeper's right post.

Italy, however, almost paid for slack defending just after the hour when Ondrej Banek's angled shot from the left crept past Buffon's far post as the goalkeeper looked on.

Two minutes later Buffon got down low to smother after Jiracek held off the Italian defence to unleash from 15 yards out.

Czech second-half substitute Daniel Kolar saw red just before full-time after receiving a second yellow card.