Italy progressed to the quarter finals of Euro 2012 with a composed 2-0 victory over Republic of Ireland, sending the Irish home pointless.
A first half goal from outspoken striker Antonio Cassano put the Italians ahead, and a wonderful volley from Mario Balotelli sealed the victory in stoppage time.
The Irish put in a more defiant performance than in their opening games, in which they had gifted early goals to Croatia and Spain. But the Italians’ superior quality eventually shone through to kill any hope Ireland had of a replay of their momentous victory over Italy 18 years ago to the day at the World Cup in USA.
Despite their composed opening to the match the Italians’ opener was caused by Irish mistakes. Glenn Whelan gave the ball away to playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who fed it infield to Antonio Di Natale. The striker skipped around keeper Shay Given but saw his strike from a narrow angle cleared off the line by Sean St Ledger.
Soon after a rasping low drive by Cassano was saved but fumbled around the post by Given, who again looked shaky in the Irish goal. The resulting corner was swung centrally by Pirlo and glanced over the line by Cassano, despite an attempted clearance by Damien Duff when the ball was well over the line.
The Irish managed to regroup and posed a threat to the Italians, with a 25-yard strike by Keith Andrews was saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Soon after, Andrews’ frustration got the better of him and was sent off for a second bookable offence after reacting angrily to the referee awarding a free-kick against him in the 89th minute.
Controversial Manchester City striker Balotelli drilled the final nail into the coffin of Ireland’s dismal Euro 2012 campaign with a spectacular second goal late on. Pirlo again swung a corner into the box from a corner and Balotelli spun and struck the ball home.
It was a more disciplined Irish display, and a more defiant defensive performance, but it was again clear from their lack of pace and cutting edge that the team is not of the quality to trouble the top teams in Europe.
Italy march on into the latter stages of the competition in true Italian style – not convincing, not exciting but brilliant at grinding out a vital, necessary result. They may not be anyone’s favourites to win the competition but history tells us they are certainly never a team to be written off.