MANCHESTER, England — 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 55th-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 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. Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain tied atop Group G after beating Latvia 1-0 and Slovakia 2-1, respectively.
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 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 cancelled 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.
Kozak’s goal meant Buffon couldn’t mark his special night with a clean sheet but he will still never forget matching Fabio Cannavaro’s appearance record at the Juventus Stadium — the home of the Turin club where he has spent most of his club career.
Italy has missed only one World Cup since 1934, but has never qualified with two matches to play.
The Netherlands can also start planning for next summer’s finals, although it took goals from Van Persie in the 50th and 55th minute to squeeze past a team ranked 205th in the world. With Romania losing at home to Turkey for the first time since 1925, the Dutch can’t be caught.
"We’ve qualified, that’s step one," said Van Persie, who moved to 38 goals for his country — two off the record held by Patrick Kluivert.. "Now have to start working toward the World Cup."
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic grabbing Sweden’s winner in one of the early matches in the latest batch of qualifiers, the Germans knew they would have to wait until next month to progress. They had little trouble seeing off the Faeroes, who were reduced to 10 men late on, with Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller scoring the goals.
Austria can still catch Sweden for second place after beating Ireland 1-0 in Vienna.
A nail-biting finish is guaranteed in England’s group after Roy Hodgson’s side — featuring Frank Lampard in his 100th international appearance — held on for a goalless draw in Kyiv to stay in command with two games left. Three points separates the English from Montenegro, Ukraine (who are both one behind) and fourth-place Poland, which thrashed San Marino 5-1.
Poland must still travel to Ukraine and England, which first plays Montenegro at home.
Russia only has to beat Azerbaijan and Luxembourg — the group’s bottom two teams — away to qualify for its first World Cup since 2002 and condemn Portugal to the playoffs. Vasiliy Berezutsky, Aleksandr Kokorin and Denis Glushakov scored for Fabio Capello’s side in Moscow.
Elsewhere in Group F, Luxembourg beat Northern Ireland 3-2 for only its fourth win in 122 World Cup qualifiers and its first at home since 1972.