PRAGUE (AP) – Ten-man Italy was held to a 0-0 draw by the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier Friday after star striker Mario Balotelli was sent off in the second half.
Three points would have seen Cesare Prandelli's men open a six-point lead over Bulgaria at the top of Group B but, if not for Gianluigi Buffon's heroics in the Italy goal, the Czechs might well have taken second spot and firmly stated their case for automatic qualification.
The Azzurri successfully weathered heavy pressure from a particularly keen Libor Kozak but Balotelli's impetuous dismissal for two quickfire yellow cards threatened to hand their hosts the initiative in the final exchanges.
The first 45 minutes in Prague proved to be a stern examination of the veteran Buffon's talents. Within minutes the Juventus keeper had swept up Tomas Sivok's header and diffused a powerful drive from Vladimir Darida, each time yelling at his defence to pay better attention.
One of that backline threatened to betray him in the 10th minute as Ignazio Abate leapt onto a Kozak strike only to divert it just wide of his own goal. The pressure on Italy's goal continued as Tomas Rosicky blasted wide having been unmarked at a corner.
Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy failed to combine in the Azzurri attack with the latter's slide-ruled pass bobbling behind his team-mate in the box, and Riccardo Montolivo's control left much to be desired when he found himself in front of Petr Cech.
Buffon had enjoyed a few minutes' respite but he was soon diving to repel a long-range drive from Kozak. It might have been unfair on the Czechs had Italy taken the lead just before the break but it was not to be as Balotelli decided against passing to an unmarked Montolivo.
Buffon was under siege once more when play resumed as a fumbled clearance on Darida's corner allowed Petr Jiracek a free header, which missed the mark. Lazio striker Kozak continued his torment of the Juve stopper with two solid efforts around the hour mark.
The Czech first sprang the offside trap to earn a one-on-one with Buffon, who spread himself to save with an outstretched toe, before trying his luck with an angular drive after Abate had failed to intercept his run. An alert Buffon survived with stung palms and the worst part of his evening was over.
For Balotelli, however, a disappointing night in front of goal boiled over into three minutes of frustration that saw the AC Milan man receive his marching orders. Moments after lunging in late on Michal Kadlec, the irate striker was shown a second yellow card for using his hands in a tussle with Theodor Gebre Selassie, prompting a flurry of kicks and punches against the walls of the Generali Arena tunnel.
The game continued but offered little more as both sides struggled for incision. Jiracek turned a Jaroslav Plasil free-kick against a post from six yards and Gebre Selassie appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty on the stroke of full-time, and the points were shared.