Italy overcame Ireland 2-0 but were relieved to secure their place in the quarter finals of Euro 2012, after suffering an agonising wait as their fate was sealed in Gdansk. Ireland at least managed to salvage some pride, turning in their best performance of a disappointing tournament that has seen them return home pointless.
The Irish caused their superior opponents problems at times, but a goal in each half from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli means that Sean St Ledger’s strike against Croatia is all they have to show for their efforts. Italy will have to improve, as they head into the quarter-finals to face the winners of England’s Group D.
Cesare Prandelli made the decision to replace Mario Balotelli with Antonio Di Natale for this game, after the Manchester City striker failed to find the net in the opening two games. Di Natale had come off the bench to score against Spain in the opening game and many thought he deserved a chance to start in place of Balotelli. The 21-year-old maverick had registered four shots off target – making him one of the top ten most wasteful players at the tournament. But he was obviously riled by the decision of his coach. Having been brought on for the final 15 minutes, he notched the nerve-settling secondnd goal for the Azzurri, and was only prevented from using his celebration to unleash a verbal volley at his manager by his team-mates.
The Italians’ two goals continued their run of set-piece successes, after both Antonio Cassano’s header and Mario Balotelli’s audacious flick came from corners in Poznan. Six of the Azzurri’s last seven goals at European Championships have now been scored from dead-ball situations. The run stretches back to their 2008 campaign in Austria and Switzerland when they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Spain. Only Di Natale’s curling effort against Spain in their opening game of this competition has come from open play.
Any team facing the Italians in the latter stages of the competition could do a lot worse than look at how Ireland approached this game. Giovanni Trapattoni’s men started the game at a frenetic pace, and the Azzuri struggled as Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle ran rings round their defence. Italy seemed unable to cope with speedy counter-attacks, and Ireland were unlucky not to make them pay as they created some promising situations. Chiellini and Barzagli looked almost bewildered at times – maybe those with more quality in their end product will be able to exploit this possible weakness as the tournament gets to its business end.
Italy finish the group stage with nine yellow cards. Chiellini, Balanetti, Motta, Montolivo, Maggio, Balotelli, Buffon, De Rossi and Banucci have all found themselves on the wrong side of the referee in their opening three games. Only Greece can match the Azzurri’s indiscipline, having also accumulated nine cautions in the opening phase. Before this game Balotelli had committed the sixth most fouls of any player in the tournament. Luckily for the Italians, the yellow cards are wiped out for the knockout stages, so all players start with a clean slate. But the Azzurri will have to clean up their act if they progress further, as two bookings in the knockout phase will lead to a suspension for the final.
Group C went down to the wire with the Italians aware that a late Croatian equaliser in Gdansk would send them home. As the final whistle blew in Poznan the Azzurri were emotionless whilst they waited for news from 240 miles away. Anxiety was all too prevalent on the faces of Cesare Prandelli’s men and their travelling fans as Croatia threw everybody – including their goalkeeper – into attack. If Slaven Bilic’s men had netted, Italy would have been eliminated on goals scored due to their inferior result against Ireland. But Croatia couldn’t find the goal they needed, and, as news filtered through to the Italian bench, it sparked rapturous scenes from the 2006 World Cup winners.
End of the road
Damien Duff led Ireland out in their final Euro 2012 fixture on his 100th and possibly final appearance. The 33-year-old was handed the armband by usual skipper Robbie Keane to mark the achievement of becoming just the fifth man to complete a century for the country. Duff, who made his senior debut alongside Keane against the Czech Republic in March 1998, has seen both the highs and the lows during the ensuing 14 years. And this could be the end of the road, not just for Duff, but also for the likes of Shay Given, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea.
Case for the defence
Mistakes at the back have been a recurring theme in Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign. They arrived at the finals having not lost in 14 games and letting in just three goals in that time. But they are heading for home after conceding nine times in just three matches, with most of the goals being self-inflicted. Tonight they conceded another two goals from set-pieces, something they pride themselves on being able to defend.
Running on empty?
Was it Giovanni Trapattoni’s training regimes and tactics, or simply fatigue after a long domestic season and then facing a different class of opposition? Either way, Ireland looked out on their feet at Euro 2012. The side had been criticised for the absence of their traditional passionate, do-or-die displays during the first two games, but showed more of their true colours against Italy which will at least give the Irish fans something to remember from their trip to Poland.
The Irish fans will probably last longer in the memory than their team at Euro 2012. And the ‘boys in green’ put on their third fantastic display in the stands on the 18th anniversary of their famous win over Italy at USA 1994. The Irish fans spent much of the game performing the famous Poznan dance – which was maybe a popular option as it involved turning their back on the action! Chants of “Ole Ole Ole, Ireland,” “come on you boys in green” and the passionate Fields of Athenry filled the Municipal Stadium. It’s a shame their side couldn’t give them a final goal to remember.
Ireland manager and former head coach of Italy, Giovanni Trapattoni was given a standing ovation when he came into the pre-match press conference on Monday by the Italian media and the sprightly 73-year-old was given an even greater reception by the Azzurri supporters and Irish fans at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan which was awash with green and blue in all corners of the ground.