POZNAN, Poland – The ghosts of 2004 can now be laid to rest.
Italy was made to work hard in its Group C finale with Ireland, but in the end, the Azzurri got the result they needed, prevailing 2-0 on goals by Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario Balotelli.
A 2-all draw in the other match, between Spain and Croatia, would still have seen Italy eliminated, but La Roja came through with a 1-0 victory, and the Italians were left to celebrate their progression to the quarterfinals.
In some ways, it was precisely the kind of game Italy manager Cesare Prandelli dreaded. Ireland came out inspired and gave the kind of effort that had been lacking in its two previous games. But Cassano’s 35th-minute goal from an Andrea Pirlo corner settled the Azzurri’s nerves, and while Ireland threatened occasionally through some set-piece opportunities of its own, Italy earned a deserved win and capped the evening in the 90th minute with a thunderous volley from Balotelli.
With defender Andrea Barzagli fit again – and perhaps more crucially, with Balotelli nursing a knee injury – Prandelli reverted to the 4-3-1-2 that served the team so well in qualifying, with Daniele De Rossi assuming his usual role in midfield. For Ireland, manager Giovanni Trapattoni went with the same lineup that he used in the 3-1 loss to Croatia, with Kevin Doyle regaining his place alongside Robbie Keane.
The match began at a frenetic pace, with Ireland eager to erase the sting of two comprehensive defeats. The Irish midfield was harassing its Italian counterparts all over the field, and rather than sit back, Ireland’s back line was setting up much further upfield, daring the Italians to play over the top.
It took a good 10 minutes for the Azzurri to settle into the match, and when they did, it resulted in a flurry of set pieces. Ireland was still looking dangerous on the counter, but some indecision on the part of Irish attackers, in particular Aiden McGeady, caused most of these opportunities to peter out.
With half an hour gone, Italy ratcheted up the pressure. Good work from Federico Balzaretti down the left wing saw him find Antonio Di Natale in the box. His off-the-turn shot was blocked by Ireland defender Sean St. Ledger with his chest, although the Italians appealed in vain for handball. Di Natale was at it again four minutes later. Put clear through on a breakaway, he rounded Shay Given, but his tight-angled shot was cleared by St. Ledger.
It proved a brief reprieve, as Italy broke on top courtesy of a set piece. Pirlo swung in a corner to the near post, and Cassano’s glancing header deflected off Given’s arm and just over the goal line before Damien Duff could clear.
The second half began with Italy firmly in control. Balzaretti was continually causing problems down the left wing. He teed up both Di Natale and Cassano with shooting opportunities, but Ireland’s defense was on hand to block both efforts.
Ireland did manage a set-piece threat of its own in the 53rd minute, but Richard Dunne’s tame header went wide. Italy then went straight down the field with Cassano setting the table for Di Natale, but his shot was saved by Given.
Both managers made substitutions around the hour mark. Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini was forced to depart because of a leg injury, with Leonardo Bonucci taking his place. Cassano then made way for Alessandro Diamani in the 63rd minute. For Ireland, Shane Long was brought on in place of Aiden McGeady while Jon Walters came on for Doyle.
Oddly, with Italy in position to close out the match, it was Ireland that began to make more headway, winning a series of set pieces. One such opportunity in the 79th minute saw Duff touch the ball to Keith Andrews, whose pile driver forced a low, smart save from Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy goal.
It proved to be the closest Ireland would come, and the game soon unraveled for the Irish. Andrews was given a second yellow card for dissent, and Balotelli capped off the evening with a spectacular volley from a Alessandro Diamanti corner to complete the scoring.
Man of the Match: Antonio Cassano
The Italy forward lasted only 63 minutes, but it was his goal that gave the team confidence and put Italy through to the knockout stages. But beyond the goal, Cassano was active for his entire stint, whether it was getting looks at goal or setting them up for the likes of Di Natale. Special mention must go to Pirlo, whose delivery from corners caused problems all night.
Final Verdict for Italy: It wasn’t always pretty, as Ireland made the Azzurri work for their victory, but when combined with Spain’s win, the result was enough to see Italy through. There will be concern about the leg injury suffered by Chiellini, which might force Prandelli to go back to the 3-5-2 he used in the first two games. But overall, it was a proud night for the Italy manager and his players.
Final Verdict for Ireland: It was the kind of performance Ireland fans had been craving, even if it did come in another losing effort. Ireland was energetic, much more organized in defense and made life plenty uncomfortable at times for the Italians. Yet in the end, it wasn’t enough, and with both Robbie Keane and Damien Duff getting closer to retirement, it leaves one to wonder where the next generation of Ireland attackers is going to come from. Certainly, James McClean and James McCarthy have shown promise, but it will take more than that for Ireland to keep qualifying for major tournaments.