By Terry Daley
ROME (Reuters) - Four-times World Cup winners Italy clinched a place at the 2014 finals in Brazil after coming from a goal down to beat Czech Republic 2-1 and win Group B on Tuesday.
A Giorgio Chiellini header and Mario Balotelli's penalty early in the second half cancelled out Libor Kozak's 19th minute opener for the visitors and moved the Italians on to 20 points, seven ahead of second-placed Bulgaria with two games to play.
Balotelli's 54th-minute winner capped a typically eventful night for the striker, who missed three easy first-half chances and was lucky not to get sent off for a foul on Tomas Sivok.
"I've never missed two such easy chances before, I was unlucky but I kept going until the end," Balotelli said.
"The easier one was the second one that (keeper Petr) Cech dropped to me. I shot high because I thought that if I shot low he would have saved it but I ended up hitting it too high."
Michal Bilek's spirited Czech side were unlucky not to get at least a point against Cesare Prandelli's unconvincing Italy and their night finished on a sour note when Daniel Kolar was sent off for a silly foul on Balotelli in the last minute.
Had Kozak's smart curling shot sneaked inside the post after a blistering counter-attack in first-half stoppage time it could have been a different result against the patchy hosts, who despite being favourites to qualify frequently put themselves under unnecessary pressure.
"I always have a terror when people start talking about partying," said Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, who equalled Fabio Cannavaro's record of 136 Azzurri appearances.
"Having passed the terror we had in the first half we can now celebrate, and I can celebrate this small record of mine, as well as getting a ticket for Brazil."
The result means the Czechs remain on nine points and are staring elimination in the face. They have slipped into fourth place behind Denmark who won 1-0 in Armenia and moved on to 12 points to stand one point behind Bulgaria, who beat Malta 2-1.
The Czechs must win their last two games away to Malta and Bulgaria next month to have any chance of a playoff place.
The visitors took a shock lead after 19 minutes with a brilliant counter-attacking goal against the run of play.
Tomas Rosicky fed Petr Jiracek, who had set off on a marauding run down the left before whipping a perfect cross over to former Lazio striker Kozak, who expertly slotted home the opener on the half-volley.
Balotelli then wasted two golden chances to equalise in the space of a minute, thumping against the bar from only metres out before crashing over from the same distance after Cech spilled Antonio Candreva's weak shot to the AC Milan striker's feet.
He then headed too close to Cech from close range after a superb Andrea Pirlo cross eight minutes before the break.
Italy quickly turned the result around at the start of the second half, with Juventus defender Chiellini nodding the equaliser into an empty net from a Pirlo corner in the 51st minute after Cech charged out of his goal only to miss the ball.
Three minutes later Balotelli made amends for his first-half mishaps when he was clumsily brought down in the area by Theodor Gebre Selassie before stepping up to casually shoot the resulting spot kick past a stationary Cech.
The Czechs rallied and Italy, with qualification in their sights, began to sit back and frustrate a nervous home crowd.
However, despite causing the Italian defence to panic on a number of occasions, the Czechs could not capitalise on their dominance and the hosts hung on to qualify with two games to spare for the first time.
(Reporting by Terry Daley; Editing by Ken Ferris and Sonia Oxley)