By Terry Daley
ROME, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon could enjoy a double celebration on Tuesday by qualifying for the World Cup and equalling Fabio Cannavaro's international appearance record.
The goalkeeper will draw level with his old Juventus teammate and former national team captain's 136 caps in their clash with the Czech Republic at the Juventus Stadium in Turin.
It was Buffon's impressive display in Friday's 1-0 win against Bulgaria that helped put his side just three points away from securing a certain spot at the tournament finals in Brazil.
"I hope that it's a night of celebrations for everyone. My personal situation will only be satisfying to me if we qualify for the World Cup," said a sanguine Buffon after the nervy victory which moved them up to 17 points.
His world class saves from Ivelin Popov and Dimitar Rangelov helped maintain the slender lead Alberto Gilardino had given them late in the first half and stretched the Azzurri's advantage at the top of Group B to seven points with three games remaining.
They are eight points ahead of the Czechs who conceded an injury-time goal to lose 2-1 at home to Armenia.
"I don't think I did anything special. I'm the Italy goalkeeper and I have to show that every time I play, for me that's how it is," said Buffon, who was acclaimed in the Italian press following the win.
Palermo keeper Stefano Sorrentino told the Corriere Dello Sport: "In Italy there are two categories of goalkeeper. The first is ours, and includes normal goalkeepers, both the good and not so good.
"Then there is another category, where there is only Buffon."
Manager Cesare Prandelli can count on the return of Milan pair Mario Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo and Southampton striker Pablo Osvaldo from suspension, but has problems in defence with fullbacks Luca Antonelli and Ignazio Abate both out after suffering injuries on Friday.
Giorgio Chiellini looked extremely uncomfortable after moving to left back, and Prandelli has called up Fiorentina's Manuel Pasqual and Sampdoria's Lorenzo De Silvestri to cover the defensive gaps.
Should they win they will qualify, while a draw will be enough if second-placed Bulgaria, on ten points, fail to beat bottom side Malta, whose only points have come from their 1-0 win in Armenia in June.
Michal Bilek's Czech team are on nine points thanks in part to a stuttering campaign during which they have won only one home game - against Malta.
They are locked in a four-way battle for the runners-up spot with Bulgaria above them and Armenia and Denmark, who are below the Czechs on goal difference.
Bulgaria, however, currently have the lowest points total of any second-placed team.
With only the eight best runners-up qualifying for the playoffs, whoever finishes behind Italy runs the risk of missing out.
The Czech's shock 2-1 home loss to Armenia also highlighted their struggles in finding a striker able to finish off scoring chances.
Their equaliser in Friday's defeat came from a long-range shot that was deflected into the net.
Czech captain Tomas Rosicky acknowledged that their poor home form has not helped the team's cause, but said they would go to Italy, hoping to steal a goal against the run of play, much like Armenia did against them.
"It will be really difficult, that's for sure, but if there is any chance at all, then it is worth fighting for," Rosicky told the iDNES website (www.idnes.cz). (Reporting by Terry Daley; editing by Toby Davis)