A Giorgio Chiellini header inspired a second-half Italy fightback as the hosts came from a goal behind to secure their place in next summer’s World Cup finals following tonight’s 2-1 victory over Czech Republic at Juventus Stadium.
The start of the evening, however, belonged Gigi Buffon, who moved level with Fabio Cannavaro as Italy’s most capped player on 136 appearances. The goalkeeper was given a magnificent reception by an enthusiastic crowd attending the first ever international fixture contested at the Bianconeri’s home.
Yet the visitors threatened to spoil the party when they took a surprise lead with 19 minutes on the clock, Libor Kozac guiding a well-placed volley into the corner after a swift Czech counter-attack.
However, the hosts emerged for the second half with renewed vigor and soon found themselves on level terms when Chiellini took advantage of a rare Petr Cech blunder to head home at the far post.
The comeback was made complete by Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who sent Cech the wrong way from the spot after initially being upended in the box by Gabre Selassie.
Buffon and Chiellini were joined by Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci in figuring for the entire encounter, while Angelo Ogbonna made a late appearance from the substitutes bench.
The victory sees Cesare Prandelli’s open up an unassailable gap on second-placed Bulgaria and book their spot in Brazil with two qualifiers to spare.
Elsewhere, Paul Pogba returned from suspension to inspire France to a 4-2 away victory over Belarus. The midfielder, named in Didier Deschamps’ starting line-up, found the target on 73 minutes to wrap up a resounding response after Les Bleus had gone in trailing at the break.
In Oslo, Stephan Lichtsteiner played the full 90 minutes as Switzerland maintained their unbeaten qualification campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Norway.
Over in Geneva, Eduardo Vargas’ double was not enough to gain Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla’s Chile a friendly triumph over Spain, as Manchester City summer signing Jesus Navas pounced in the dying seconds to guarantee a share of the spoils.