Prague – Italy had striker Mario Balotelli dismissed as they drew 0-0 at the Czech Republic on Friday to stay on pace to secure qualification to the 2014 World Cup.
Balotelli was sent off with a second booking after hitting Theodor Gebre Selassie in the face on a high ball. Petr Jiracek volleyed against the right post late in the game for the Czechs.
The Azzurri lead group B on 14 points with four games left, four clear of Bulgaria and five ahead of the Czechs. The group winner qualifies directly for the World Cup in Brazil.
“It was a heavy point,” Italian coach Cesare Prandelli said. “Of course we lacked speed and we suffered, but these are the games that help form a team's character.
“After a difficult (league) season you cannot have your tank full. We knew it. We wanted this point and we deserved it.”
The hosts had early chances at the Generali Arena from Vladimir Darida's shot, Ignazio Abate almost caused an own goal, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon stopped Jiracek in the 12th.
More efforts from home captain Tomas Rosicky, Jiracek and Libor Kozak went begging before Italy managed to get control in midfield, failing however to threaten Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech as they lacked speed and tactical ideas.
Balotelli received few usable feeds and rarely had the better against the Czech defenders as he played alongside AC Milan team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy, who after the break gave way to Sebastian Giovinco.
Captain Buffon proved to be his team's best player when on 61
minutes was again ready to stop Kozak, who six minutes later saw the 2006 world champion save his long-range shot as well.
The Azzurri lost steam with 18 minutes after Balotelli had to go, and they were lucky on Jiracek's volley and when Daniel Kolar's late effort grazed the post.
Italy now move on to the Confederations Cup which is played between June 15 and 30 in Brazil, and where they meet Mexico, Japan and hosts Brazil in the group stage.Author: Alberto Cagliano. – Sapa-dpa