Italy, Netherlands qualify for WC finals

By Steve Douglas ,AP

MANCHESTER, UK — Italy and the Netherlands became the first European teams to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but Germany’s passage to the finals in Brazil was delayed despite also winning on Tuesday.

Mario Balotelli’s 54th-minute penalty secured a 2-1 win for Italy over the Czech Republic to seal first place in Group B, while Robin van Persie’s second-half double in a 2-0 win at Andorra guaranteed the Dutch top spot in Group D.

Both countries qualified with two matches to spare, with the Azzurri qualifying for their 14th straight World Cup on the night goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made a record-equaling 136th appearance for Italy.

Germany beat the Faeroe Islands 3-0 but still needs one more win for automatic qualification, with Sweden five points behind with two matches left after a 1-0 win in Kazakhstan.

England’s destiny is in its own hands after drawing 0-0 at Ukraine to stay top of Group H and Russia can also make the finals by winning its last two games after beating Israel 3-1 to topple Portugal in Group F.

France twice came from behind to defeat Belarus 4-2 and draw level with Group I leader Spain, which has a game in hand.

Elsewhere, Switzerland won 2-0 at Norway in Group E and needs just one victory from its last two games, against Albania away and Slovenia at home, to finish first. Bosnia-Herzegovina remained ahead of Greece on goal difference in Group G after coming from behind to beat Slovakia 2-1.

The top team from each of the nine European groups qualifies automatically for Brazil. The best eight runners-up go into playoffs in November and that is likely to include Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, with Russia having two easy final games.

Spain wasn’t in part of the World Cup qualifying action but still played Tuesday, twice coming from behind to draw 2-2 with Chile in Geneva.

At halftime in their respective matches, Italy and the Dutch were on course to blow their chances of sealing qualification early but their star forwards came through for them when it mattered.

Three minutes after Giorgio Chiellini canceled out Libor Kozak’s opener for the Czechs in the 19th, Balotelli stepped up after being brought down in the area to coolly convert his penalty. The AC Milan striker had missed a string of great chances before maintaining his record of never missing a spot kick.