Antonio Cassano and a stunning Mario Balotelli overhead kick gave Italy the 2-0 win over the Republic of Ireland, so the Azzurri are in the quarter-finals! The result was enough because Spain beat Croatia 1-0.
The Azzurri had two 1-1 draws and put themselves in a position where qualification was no longer in their hands. They needed a victory against the already-eliminated Ireland and for Croatia-Spain not to end in a stalemate, particularly a 2-2 result.
Cesare Prandelli shelved the 3-5-2 system he’d used in the previous two matches and returned to the 4-3-1-2 that got them through qualifying for Euro 2012. Mario Balotelli shook off a knee injury, but was still benched in favour of Antonio Di Natale with Thiago Motta the top point of a diamond midfield. Andrea Barzagli made his first appearance of the tournament after recovering from a calf strain, moving Daniele De Rossi back to midfield, while Ignazio Abate (with five stitches in his forehead from a training ground accident) and Federico Balzaretti replaced Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were already eliminated after two consecutive defeats, but used the same line-up that lost the opening match with Croatia. Damien Duff was given the captain’s armband to mark his 100th cap. There were considerably more Irish fans in Poznan than Italian and this match was 18 years to the day since Ireland beat the Azzurri 1-0 in the 1994 World Cup.
In the opening 12 seconds Ireland threatened with Kevin Doyle bursting through the middle and Gigi Buffon smothering at his feet, then De Rossi volleyed wide. Thiago Motta slipped and couldn’t make the most of a De Rossi knockdown from a corner that had him free from six yards.
Andrea Pirlo had a knock to the ankle and Giorgio Chiellini had a clash of heads with Doyle. Balzaretti had an audacious long-range strike well over. Balzaretti was inevitably booked for a rugby tackle.
Di Natale had a great chance and spun round in the box to shoot, but Sean St Ledger was in the right place to charge it down with his shoulder.
The Udinese veteran squirmed between three defenders until St Ledger managed to scramble clear. Di Natale sprung the offside trap and got down the left to draw out Shay Given, but the angle was too narrow and there was nobody ready to tap in, so he had to go for goal from the tightest of angles and forced a St Ledger goalline clearance.
Given didn’t seem to know where Antonio Cassano’s long-range screamer was going and let it bounce of his arm out for a corner. From that Pirlo set play, Cassano’s glancing header at the near post was cleared on to the underside of the crossbar by Duff, but only after it had clearly crossed the line. Italy went in front 1-0 at the 35th minute thanks to a good call from the linesman.
Pirlo tried to repeat his free kick against Croatia, but hit the wall, while Di Natale’s acrobatic volleyed cross couldn’t find anyone ready to turn in. John O’Shea was booked for an arm into Balzaretti’s face that left the Palermo full-back with a heavily bleeding lip.
De Rossi’s shot was charged down before the break. Croatia-Spain was goalless at half-time, so with these results Italy would be through top of the group.
After the restart Balzaretti rolled across for Di Natale, whose shot was charged down from point-blank range. Balzaretti did great work to skip past his marker and pull back from the by-line, but once again Cassano had an angled drive with the inside of his foot cleared by Richard Dunne with Given beaten.
De Rossi blasted over on the counter-attack and Dunne nodded well wide from a corner, while Di Natale again charged into the box and forced Given into a save at the near post.
Bad news for the Azzurri, as Chiellini was at full stretch when he appeared to suffer a thigh strain and had to be stretchered off to make way for Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci.
Claudio Marchisio’s volley was well wide and Andrews fired straight at Buffon from distance. Prandelli made a surprising substitution, replacing Cassano with trequartista Alessandro Diamanti, and the Bologna man fired straight at Given while slipping on the turf.
O’Shea flattened Diamanti for a free kick right on the edge of the box, but Pirlo turned it over the bar. De Rossi went into the book for stopping a dangerous counter-attack and Buffon followed for dissent. Balotelli was thrown on for Di Natale.
Irish confidence was rising and Buffon couldn’t get to a cross from a corner, seeing Shane Long head on to the roof of the net. On 79 minutes a fierce Keith Andrews free kick broke through the Italian wall, but Buffon was equal to it with a fine parry.
Balotelli went on a mazy run and fell when tripped by St Ledger on the edge of the area, which Diamanti clipped off the wall. The tension was high as both Balotelli and Marchisio used their arms to shrug off challenges and risked cards.
Keith Andrews received a second yellow card for dissent in the final minutes and completely lost his temper, kicking the ball straight at Prandelli on the touchline as he was dragged off the pitch.
Moments later, Italy doubled their lead with an absolutely amazing goal from Balotelli. A corner was drifted in and he netted with a classic overhead kick! As is his style, SuperMario did not celebrate, but appeared to be ready to say something, as Bonucci slapped a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.
The Azzurri still needed a third to be sure of going through even if Croatia equalised against Spain, but Balotelli’s shot was deflected wide on the counter. The team had to wait around on the pitch to see what the final score from Gdansk was.
Italy 2-0 Ireland
Scorers: Cassano 35 (It), Balotelli 90 (It)
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)
Ref: Cakir (Tur)
Sent off: Andrews 89 (Ir)