Italy overcame the Republic of Ireland, and a bout of nerves, to take their place in the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter-finals after Spain defeated Croatia in Group C’s other deciding match.
The Azzurri knew victory was a must before kick-off, but they also had to rely on events in Gdansk. Antonio Cassano helped Cesare Prandelli's side towards their part of the bargain, heading in Andrea Pirlo's 35th-minute corner. Italian fears of a high-scoring draw in the corresponding game were allayed by a late Jesús Navas goal, and substitute Mario Balotelli hooked in a late second to make certain of the three points and, ultimately, second place in the section.
The onus was on Italy, but it was Ireland who started with more urgency. Giovanni Trapattoni had lamented the concession of early goals in both his side's losses, and the first opening fell to Kevin Doyle within ten seconds of kick-off, though the forward was unable to get his shot away. Ireland were looking lively, again cheered on by their huge travelling support, and Doyle had a header blocked as they sought a tangible return from their early adventure.
However, Italy soon shook off their early hesitancy and – crucially – began to get Cassano into the game. It took Sean St Ledger's sturdy torso to block the No10's goalbound shot before he released Antonio Di Natale, who skipped round Shay Given only to see his effort from an acute angle cleared by the same Ireland defender.
The goalkeeper could then only divert a speculative Cassano shot round the post, and from the resulting corner, the AC Milan forward glanced in Pirlo's flat delivery with the Ireland captain for the day, Damien Duff, unable to hack it clear in time from his station on the back post.
At half-time, with Croatia and Spain goalless, Italy were going through as group winners. They also nearly doubled their lead on the resumption when some neat interplay between Federico Balzaretti and Cassano left the latter in on goal, only for Richard Dunne to get across and block the shot. Ireland were not done just yet, though, and their ploy of getting wide and supplying crosses always looked like it could produce something.
Much like in the Croatia game, Italy were falling back, their cause not aided by the loss of Giorgio Chiellini to injury before the hour. Cassano had also been replaced and the pressure built on the Azzurri goal. St Ledger headed over and Gianluigi Buffon beat away Keith Andrews' low drive as Ireland piled forward, preying on Italian nerves.
However, as news drifted through of Spain's goal, Italy relaxed and were seeing out the last few minutes comfortably enough, especially after Andrews was dismissed for a second bookable offence. Balotelli then made things certain, in Poznan at least, when he converted Alessandro Diamanti's corner in the 90th minute. While Ireland go home with three losses from their first EURO appearance since 1988, unbeaten Italy survive to play another day.
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