FIFA World Cup Qualifying: Czech Republic 0 Italy 0
By Football News
Italy kept their bid for FIFA World Cup qualification on track with a 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic, despite Mario Balotelli's dismissal.
Michal Bilek's team dominated large parts of Friday's encounter in Prague, but wasted numerous chances to take the lead against an Italian defence which presented several opportunities.
And even Balotelli's late sending off - which came courtesy of two yellow cards in quick succession - could not change that, with Petr Jiracek coming closest by striking the post in the game's dying embers.
Italy now lead second-placed Bulgaria by four points in UEFA qualifying Group B, while the Czechs stay in third, one point short of a play-off spot.
The hosts were without the services of the injured Matej Vydra, who had scored twice in the 3-0 friendly win over Armenia in March, but named a strong team which included Premier League duo Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky.
Cesare Prandelli, meanwhile, opted for Milan trio Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Riccardo Montolivo in attack, as Juventus' Andrea Barzagli returned from injury to take place in the centre of defence.
Given that they desperately required a win in order to keep their hopes of qualification alive, it was perhaps no surprise that the hosts started the game the better of the two sides.
Gianluigi Buffon was forced into a world-class save to deny Tomas Sivok with just seven minutes on the clock and was soon tested again from close range by Jiracek.
However, the hosts' momentum was somewhat slowed when David Limbersky had to be withdrawn in the 20th minute due to injury, with Marek Suchy coming on as his replacement.
Italy's control of the Czechs' five-man midfield increased as time passed, but the visitors had little to show for their efforts as the first half drew to a close with the teams somewhat cancelling each other out.
El Shaarawy was the man to pay for Italy's lacklustre performance at half-time, as he was withdrawn for Sebastian Giovinco by Prandelli. But they were given a huge warning shot just nine minutes later, when Jiracek turned in a corner only to see the linesman's flag raised for offside.
The hosts then almost took the lead again in the 61st minute, when Libor Kozak latched onto a brilliant Rosicky ball behind the defence but could not get his shot off before Buffon arrived at his feet to smother.
Czech coach Bilek was no doubt ruing his side's profligacy in the aftermath of that opportunity - the best of the half - but the hosts' chances were about to receive a huge boost courtesy of Balotelli.
The striker rightly saw yellow for a late challenge on Michal Kadlec, but was arguably unfortunate to receive a second four minutes later after catching Theodor Gebre Selassie with his hand as the pair challenged for a high ball.
Balotelli was visibly angered as he left the pitch, punching and kicking the walls on his way down the tunnel, but his team-mates' focus had suddenly turned to securing a crucial point in difficult circumstances.
They were made to work for that share of the spoils late in the game, as the Czech Republic pushed hard for a goal which would move them into second place in the group.
However, Jiracek's volley off the post in the 84th minute summed up the hosts' night, and ensured Italy had good fortune to thank for a barely earned point.