The Netherlands found an unlikely saviour in Daniël de Ridder as the substitute scored with his first touch to seal a 1-0 victory against Italy and a place in the semi-finals of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.
The Azzurrini entered the match at the top of Group B but ended it in third place, and out of the competition, on the head-to-head rule after finishing level on four points with the Dutch. De Ridder's 74th-minute header was almost cancelled out twice by Pasquale Foggia, yet Italy could not find a late goal for the third time in as many matches. The Netherlands now move north to meet France in Braga on Thursday, when pool winners Ukraine face Serbia and Montenegro.
With each side creating two chances inside the opening ten minutes, it seemed both coaches' promise of an attacking affair would be heeded. Raffaele Palladino flashed the first of them over with his left foot with eleven seconds played, and with barely 90 more having passed Urby Emanuelson curled in a low cross from the left for Klaas Jan Huntelaar who darted in front of Cesare Bovo but flicked the ball over from five metres out.
After Alessandro Rosina had fired over following a promising run, a hopeful cross from Dwight Tiendalli - making his finals debut - was diverted into the path of Huntelaar by Paolo Sammarco, although defender Bovo was alert and conceded a corner. One of coach Foppe de Haan's four tactical changes saw Demy de Zeeuw handed his first start and the midfield anchor was soon providing the depth and solidity which freed Stijn Schaars, Nicky Hofs and Ismaïl Aissati to dictate the pace of the game.
Still, it was Italy, for whom the inclusion of Riccardo Montolivio for suspended captain Marco Donadel was their only change, who next threatened as Bovo's precise long ball over Tiendalli freed Foggia down the left. The winger looked up and centred for Palladino who shimmied one way, then the other before forcing Kenneth Vermeer into a smart stop with his legs; a rare forward foray for the holders with a point enough for them to progress.
All or nothing
Yet it was all or nothing for their opponents, who dominated possession in the opening 45 without causing Gianluca Curci alarm - Huntelaar having a goal chalked out for offside before bending a free-kick from 20 metres harmlessly over. With a wall of white shirts continuing to block their path to goal after the restart too, the Netherlands began shooting from range with efforts from Aissati and De Zeeuw whistling off target.
De Ridder winner
The match, and the destiny of the group, swung with the introduction of De Ridder for Schaars in the 72nd minute. The substitute's first touch was one to treasure as Romeo Castelen wriggled free down the left and crossed to the far post where De Ridder headed high into the net via the palm of Curci.
Carlsberg Man of the Match: Daniël de Ridder