Italy march on, Ireland bow out
Italy 2 Ireland 0
Cassano (1-0); Balotelli (2-0)
Italy sealed their place in the quarter-finals of the 2012 UEFA European Championships with a victory that somehow managed to be simultaneously comfortable and nervy. The Irish rarely threatened Italy but despite their superiority, the Azzurri didn’t get their second goal in this must-win game until the 90th minute. This coupled with the fact that Spain and Croatia remained goalless until the 88th minute meant the Italians fate was in the balance right up until the end. However, now that they have qualified to face either France, Ukraine or England in the next round there is a growing belief that Italians can mount a serious challenge for the title.
Ireland had only pride to play for having been eliminated after defeat to Spain in their second match of the group. Indeed, at the outset it appeared that Ireland had made a significant step up from the insipid displays against Croatia and the reigning European champions. They pressed Italy high up the field and could have taken the lead after less than a minute when a misplaced pass from the surprisingly ineffective Andrea Pirlo was seized upon by Kevin Doyle – however, the Irish striker was crowded out before he could get a shot away. The Irish initially made good use of the recalled Doyle’s physicality and height and launched a number of long balls into the Italian area, where the defence of the men from the peninsula looked, at times, less than assured. Cesare Prandelli had made significant alterations to his tactics for this game, switching from the three at back that had served Italy so well in their first two matches to a more orthodox back four, including Abate and the returning Barzagli in the team. This did allow him to push De Rossi back into midfield where he clearly enjoyed the physical battle with the Irish and played very well. However, it took the Italians time to adjust to the new set-up and this offered Ireland a glimmer of hope in the early stages.
As the half wore on however, Italy’s superior quality began to tell. They began to dominate possession and started to find gaps in the Irish defensive set-up. Di Natale looked dangerous with a couple of good efforts before the Azzurri took the lead through an Antonio Cassano header. Given had been poor in spilling a relatively straightforward Cassano shot over the line for a corner. From the resultant delivery however, it was the Irish defence who were culpable, Cassano got in front of his marker and from an acute angle flicked the header goal wards. Given got a hand to it but it bounced over the line before Duff hacked it clear. With that goal Italy took the lead in the Group C table as the match in Gdansk between Spain and Croatia remained scoreless. However, the Italians knew even with the lead, their fate was not entirely in their own hands. It was in this knowledge that they went in at the half 1-0 to the good.
The second half started well for Italy, with Cassano and particularly Di Natale looking lively. However, as the minutes ticked by the Italians became visibly nervous. They retreated further and further towards their own goal and this gave the Irish a welcome opportunity to get forward. They very nearly made Italy pay as they forced set-pieces in and around the Italian area and from one of these Keith Andrews unleashed a piledriver that Gigi Buffon did very well to get down to – Barzagli was alive to the rebound before any Irish player and the danger was averted. Only with the introduction of Balotelli did Italy once more force their game on Ireland. The Man City forward had been carrying a slight knock to his ankle going into this game but showed no signs of this as his pace, power and directness had the Irish defence in trouble. It was Balotelli who had the final say, scoring a quite brilliant volley late on that gave Given no chance. He then had to be restrained by Bonucci from unleashing a tirade (in English it seems so most likely against some so-called Irish “fans” who had decided to boo him upon his introduction to the game) that would assuredly have landed him in hot water with the referee. The same referee had already given Keith Andrew’s his marching orders for dissent as the Irishman’s frustration boiled over. A pity it ended like that for Andrews, who over the course of a bad tournament for Ireland had been one of the very few, if not only, good performers.
The Irish fans once again outnumbered the opposition about 5 to 1 and gave their team excellent support. The songs continued in defeat and the Irish players were given a great reception as they left the field. Some of them may now retire and some have been revealed as lacking the quality for international football. Giovanni Trapattoni has many hard questions to face before the World Cup qualifiers begin in September. As an Irishman I hope he has the right answers, but I fear he does not. Youth must now be given its chance – both on the pitch and off it.
The Italian fans and players sang too. After the humiliation of the World Cup in 2010, this was a big step on the road to recovery. They will face into their quarter-final knowing that very few are talking about them as favourites or putting them in the same class as Germany or Spain. This will suit Italy just fine – as in 2006 they might just fancy their chances of securing a major championship win under everyone else’s radar. As a Fiorentina and Serie A fan I can now say with a clear conscience – FORZA AZZURRI!
Italy: Buffon; Abate, Barzagli, Chiellini (Bonucci 57), Balzaretti; De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio; Thiago Motta; Cassano (Diamanti 63), Di Natale (Balotelli 74)
Republic of Ireland: Given; O’Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward; McGeady (Long 65), Whelan, Andrews, Duff; Doyle (Walters 76), Keane (Cox 86)