TURIN, Italy (AP) – Italy secured qualification for the 2014 World Cup with two matches to spare on Tuesday after coming from behind to beat the Czech Republic 2-1.
Nerves were frayed after a first half in which Libor Kozak gave the visitors the lead and Mario Balotelli missed two easy chances as well as hitting the crossbar.
However, Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini headed in the equalizer at his home stadium seven minutes after the break before Balotelli - who has never missed a spot kick in his professional career - scored what was to prove the winner from the penalty spot after he was fouled by Theodor Gebre Selassie.
''It's a great satisfaction,'' Italy coach Prandelli said. ''This is a very talented team which always manages to give its maximum. I saw a great Italy. We conceded on one counter-attack, which was what they wanted, but we created four scoring opportunities in the first half and I said we had to keep believing
''Strikers make mistakes sometimes but he (Balotelli) was in the right positions, created four or five chances for himself ... and so he was rewarded. It's an added experience (for him) and you grow with experience.''
Italy tops Group B with 20 points, seven more than second-placed Bulgaria which beat Malta 2-1. Denmark is third after winning 1-0 in Armenia. The Czech Republic is fourth on nine points.
''Unfortunately we made two mistakes and we were punished from a penalty and a corner,'' said Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek, who tendered his resignation after the match. ''We had to win one of these last two games and we didn't, so even though qualification is still a theoretical possibility, we don't believe it any more.
''We're very disappointed, we wanted to play in the World Cup.''
Italy has missed only one World Cup since 1934, but has never qualified with two matches to spare.
It will likely be goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon's fifth World Cup and it was a special night for the Juventus goalkeeper who equaled Fabio Cannavaro's record of 136 international appearances for the Azzurri.
It was fitting that the achievement came at the Juventus Stadium as Buffon has spent most of his career at the illustrious Italian club.
The Azzurri started the brighter and dominated the opening stages, forcing several early corners. However, the Czech Republic stunned the home fans by taking the lead in the 19th minute in a well-worked moved started by Tomas Rosicky in midfield. The ball came out to Petr Jiracek and he raced down the left flank before crossing in for Kozak to volley into the bottom left corner with a scissor-kick.
Balotelli had three incredible chances to level five minutes later. The AC Milan striker first smashed Emanuele Giaccherini's cross onto the crossbar from five meters before - moments later - twice blazing over from close range.
The first was when Petr Cech spilled Andrea Pirlo's effort and Balotelli rushed in only to balloon the rebound over. Seconds later he again hooked the ball over the crossbar - albeit it from a slightly harder opportunity.
Balotelli had another chance 10 minutes later but Cech did very well to parry his header from point-blank range. However, the home fans loudly chanted his name, in support of the 23-year-old striker.
''I've never missed so many chances,'' Balotelli said . ''I was unlucky but in the end we battled right till the end.
''We've become a solid group of players, we're strong, compact and we always manage to emerge victorious from sticky situations.
Italy again almost leveled in first-half stoppages but Cech turned Antonio Candreva's shot round the post.
From the ensuing corner, the Czechs sparked panic in the Italy ranks as they went close to doubling their advantage with a rapid counter-attack which Kozak fired over the bar, much to the relief of Buffon, who would have been beaten.
Italy leveled shortly after the restart, with Chiellini rising highest in the six-yard box to head in a corner much to the delight and relief of the crowd.
And Italy was in front two minutes later. Balotelli was brought down in the area by a crude challenge from behind by Gebre Selassie and the striker coolly fired the resulting penalty into the bottom left corner.
Balotelli has converted all 25 of the penalties he has taken in his career.
It was tense for rest of the match for Italy as the Czech Republic threatened several times. However, the visitors could find no way through and their miserable night was complete when Daniel Kolar was sent off in the final minute after receiving a second yellow card.
Bulgaria and Denmark are now fighting it out for a playoff spot. Radoslav Dimitrov gave Bulgaria an early lead in Malta before Emil Gargorov doubled its advantage shortly after the break. Edward Herrera pulled one back for Malta 12 minutes from time.
Daniel Agger scored a 73rd-minute penalty to help Denmark to a narrow victory in Armenia. Varazdat Haroyan had brought down Viktor Fischer and the Armenian was sent off after he was shown a second yellow card.