It is a footballing paradox that the quality of your performance is not always reflected by the result. Last night, Italy's worst 90 minutes of the tournament produced their first win, while the Republic of Ireland's best showing brought only a third successive defeat.
The Azzurri appeared out of sorts from the outset. Gone was the free-flowing football they had shown against Spain and Croatia; Thiago Motta was off the pace and Andrea Pirlo unusually wasteful in possession. The Juventus playmaker set the tone with a back pass that put Kevin Doyle through inside the first ten seconds.
Whether it was the enormity of the occasion or the change of formation, Cesare Prandelli's men looked ragged for the first 20 minutes, but thanks to the persistence of Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and an improving Motta, Italy wrested back control. In the end, they rediscovered their poise and supremacy, and were worthy victors. Yet it was a victory born more of bloody-mindedness than quality. Italy will not mind too much about that. After all, before last night two fine displays had mustered just two points.
Through the murkiness of the Azzurri performance, however, shone one guiding light. With Pirlo under par, Antonio Cassano was the one remaining player capable of conjuring something out of nothing; it was his shot that forced Shay Given into conceding the corner from which Italy took the lead, and his goal that broke the deadlock.
Although, at 1.75m, Cassano was the second shortest player on the pitch, it was he who rose highest to meet Pirlo's corner. He stood head and shoulders above the rest, making incisive runs here, taking on defenders there and always seeking to play in his team-mates.
Once Cassano came off, Italy once again began to defend deeper, and the nerves started to jangle, especially when Spain scored against Croatia with three minutes to go. An equaliser for Slaven Bilić's side and Italy were out. The Azzurri struck again from another set piece courtesy of Mario Balotelli's first competitive international goal, but the final whistle meant all they could do was wait for the news from Gdansk. Fortunately, when it came, it was good.
Italy will have to improve on that display to get past France, England or Ukraine in the quarter-finals, yet they have already proved they can play an expansive game. They will also not expect to come up against such a workmanlike team again – and even if they do, they'll settle for winning ugly once more.
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