Czech Republic draws 0-0 with Italy in qualifying
Ten-man Italy escaped with a 0-0 draw against the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier Friday after star striker Mario Balotelli was sent off in the second half.
The draw still allowed Italy to pull four points clear of second-place Bulgaria in Group B with four more games to go. The Czechs are third, five points behind Italy and still have hopes of reaching next year's tournament in Brazil.
Balotelli was sent off in the 72nd minute after receiving his second yellow card.
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made two good saves to keep the game scoreless. He raced off his line to deny Petr Jiracek in the first half and did the same in the second to prevent Libor Kozak from netting.
''The point is of great importance for us,'' Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli said through an interpreter. ''It's clear. Without (Buffon), we would have lost, he was our best player. ... We were not able to find our rhythm. We were very slow.''
The Czechs went on the attack after the Italians were reduced to 10 men and captain Tomas Rosicky had his goal-bound shot blocked in the 75th minute. Six minutes from time, Jiracek beat Buffon but hit the post from Jaroslav Plasil's free kick.
''It's a huge disappointment,'' Jiracek said. ''I wasted such big chances.''
Substitute Daniel Kolar fired just wide in injury time when left unmarked in the area, while Lazio striker Kozak tested Buffon again with a shot from the edge of the area following a flowing Czech move in the 67th.
''We played a great match,'' Kozak said. ''We just didn't score.''
The Czechs looked rejuvenated by the presence of Rosicky, who missed most of the campaign due to an injury.
Ignazio Abate almost netted an own goal 11 minutes into the game by diverting a pass from Tomas Hubschman to Kozak and the ball just went wide of the left post.
Oother attempts by Rosicky, Jiracek and Michal Kadlec missed the target while Buffon dived to his right to save a shot from Kozak from outside the area.
Prandelli started Balotelli alongside Stephan El Shaarawy in attack but the Milan star forwards failed to make their presence felt.
Although the visitors gradually gained composure later in the first half, they were unable to pose a threat to goalkeeper Petr Cech, with Balotelli more engaged in arguing with the opponents, fellow Italians and the referee.
''Balotelli was nervous,'' Prandelli said. ''It is his problem and he has to cope with that.''
El Shaarawy was replaced after the first half by Sebastian Giovinco.
Next, the Czech Republic hosts Armenia on Sept. 6 while Italy plays Bulgaria at home.
Italy now travels to Brazil for the June 15-30 Confederations Cup.