Italy draws with Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying
Goaltending offsets Mario Balotelli's ejection
Ten-man Italy escaped with a 0-0 draw against the Czech Republic in a World Cup qualifier Friday in Prague 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's 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.
Elsewhere in Group B action Friday, Malta beat Armenia 1-0 in Yerevan.
Portugal bounces back with win
Helder Postiga's early goal gave Portugal a 1-0 win over Russia on Friday in Lisbon and kept alive Portuguese hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup after a series of poor results.
The win lifted Portugal to the top of Group F with a two-point advantage over Russia, but Fabio Capello's team has two games in hand and this game was close.
Centre-forward Postiga scored in the ninth minute when his close-range shot went in off the left post.
The victory was crucial for Cristiano Ronaldo's team, which can't afford to drop any more points after drawing with Israel and Northern Ireland.
Russia had recorded four straight wins in its qualifying campaign before the defeat in Lisbon and still looks the strongest candidate for the group's automatic qualifying spot.
Other Group F play on Friday saw Luxembourg and Azerbaijan play to a 1-1 draw in Baku.
Scotland surprises Croatia
A goal by Robert Snodgrass gave Scotland a surprising 1-0 victory over host Croatia in a World Cup qualifier Friday in Zagreb.
Scotland's goal came in the 26th minute, after Shaun Maloney charged forward and the ball was deflected by Darijo Srna directly to Snodgrass, who slotted it into the net.
Scotland was last in Group A entering the game and was without several of its regular starters, but earned its first victory in the qualifying campaign.
Croatia was previously undefeated but suffered a costly loss in its fight with Belgium for top spot in the group.
Croatia defender Gordon Schildenfeld said "we really did not expect this. We conceded a stupid goal, missed some chances, and lost."
Belgium edges Serbia
Kevin De Bruyne scored a goal and assisted on another to give Belgium a 2-1 win over Serbia and the lead in its World Cup qualifying group.
Belgium craved an early lead in Friday's game in Brussels and got it when Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen sent in a cross from the right in the 14th minute and Werder Bremen's De Bruyne headed home into the near corner.
On the hour-mark, De Bruyne sent in a corner toward Marouane Fellaini and the Everton midfielder beat Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic to the ball to put the match beyond doubt.
An 86th-minute consolation from a free kick by Manchester City's Aleksandar Kolarov came too late to sway the momentum in the game at the sold-out 50,000-capacity Kig Baudouin stadium.
Poland and Moldova tied 1-1 in another Group A game on Friday in Chisinau.
Austria gets past Sweden
First-half goals by David Alaba and Marc Janko helped Austria beat Sweden 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier Friday in Vienna, leaving the fight for second place behind Group C favourite Germany wide open.
Sweden looked in control of the match for the opening 25 minutes before conceding two goals within six minutes.
Alaba scored from the penalty spot after Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson brought down Martin Harnik following a mistake by defender Jonas Olsson, who failed to clear the ball.
In the 31st, Harnik's cross from the right found Janko, who beat Isaksson at the first post with a diving header.
Johan Elmander reduced Sweden's deficit after being set up by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 81st.
Austria now has 11 points from six matches, Sweden eight from five. Leader Germany has 16.
Keane sparks Ireland
Robbie Keane celebrated his national-record 126th appearance for Ireland by grabbing a hat trick in a 3-0 win over Faeroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Friday in Dublin, taking the Los Angeles Galaxy striker's international tally to 59 goals.
Keane demonstrated his predatory instincts by scoring from close range in the fifth, 56th and 81st minutes at Lansdowne Road to lift the Irish into third place in Group C, above Sweden. Germany is the runaway leader in the pool, with second-place Austria and Ireland five points behind.
The 32-year-old Keane, who is Ireland's record scorer, moved past goalkeeper Shay Given's 125 caps.
Ukraine blanks Montenegro
Ukraine beat Montenegro 4-0 in World Cup qualifying Friday in Podgorica, putting itself in contention for a spot in Brazil and throwing Group H wide open.
The victory puts Ukraine three points behind group leader Montenegro with a game in hand, and also did second-place England a big favour. England now controls its own fate again as it is two points behind Montenegro, also with a game in hand.
Denys Garmash scored first in 52nd minute after goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic spilled a long-range shot from Andriy Yarmolenko out for a rebound.
Yevgen Konoplianka then took a perfect pass from Yarmolenko to double the lead in the 77th, before Artem Fedetski added the third from a tight angle in the 85th.
Substitute Roman Bezus netted a solo goal to cap the victory in injury time.
Slovakia and Liechtenstein drew 1-1 in Group H action on Friday in Vaduz.
U.S. notches thrilling win over Jamaica
Brad Evans scored in the second minute of stoppage time in the second half, giving the U.S. a thrilling 2-1 win over Jamaica at Kingston on Friday night that solidified the Americans' chances of qualifying for next year's World Cup.
Jozy Altidore put the Americans ahead in the 30th minute, but Jermaine Beckford tied the score off a corner kick in the 89th as the U.S. again failed to hold a lead on the road. Just over a minute into stoppage time, Michael Bradley got around Alvas Powell and passed to an unmarked Evans, who turned and beat goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts from about 10 yards.
It was the first international goal for Evans, starting at right back because Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler weren't available.
Argentina battles to draw with Colombia
Argentina remained five points clear atop the South American World Cup qualifying standings after drawing 0-0 at home against Colombia on Friday.
Argentina improved to 25 points from 12 matches and Colombia has 20 from 11.
Chile took sole possession of fourth place in the standings — the final automatic qualifying place for Brazil 2014 — by winning 2-1 at bottom team Paraguay while Venezuela is fifth after a 0-0 draw at Bolivia.
Argentina's top player Lionel Messi entered the game as a 57th minute substitute. The Barcelona star has an injured right hamstring muscle and missed the final three weeks of the Spanish league season.
Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Zapata of Colombia were sent off on straight red cards in the 26th for getting into a tussle.
"We had lots of possession and they had chances to score," said Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina, describing an evenly played match.
Chile drops Paraguay
Chile moved to outright fourth with a 2-1 win at struggling Paraguay.
Eduardo Vargas put the visitors ahead in the 41st minute and Juventus striker Arturo Vidal doubled the advantage in the 56th.
Experienced striker Roque Santa Cruz pulled back a goal for Paraguay in the 88th minute but the hosts could not find an equalizer. With only four qualifiers to play, Paraguay's chances of qualifying for Brazil seem all but over.
Venezuela, Bolivia draw
Venezuela would have stayed level on points with Chile but conceded a late equalizer to hosts Bolivia in their 1-1 draw in the thin air of La Paz.
Venezuela took a 1-0 lead through Juan Arango's goal in the 58th minute, but Bolivia's Jhasmany Campos hit the equalizer in the 86th.
Despite the disappointment of conceding a late equalizer, the away point boosted Venezuela's chances of securing at least fifth place, and the intercontinental playoff place for a spot at next year's World Cup.
Venezuela is the only South American team never to have played in football's main event.
Peru's veteran forward Claudio Pizarro scored in the 12th minute and the home team held that advantage for the rest of the game to beat Ecuador.
Peru moved up to sixth in the standings, two points behind Venezuela in the race for the all-important fifth place.
Bosnia and Herzegovina blanked Latvia 5-0 in one Group G game on Friday in Latvia while Greece shut out Lithuania 1-0 in Vilnius.
Slovenia doubled Iceland 4-2 in Group E play in Reykjavik while Norway and Albania drew 1-1 in Tirana.
Finland beat Belarus 1-0 in Group I action in Helsinki.