POZNAN: Italy never do things easily and although the 2-0 scoreline suggests they comfortably beat Ireland on Monday to reach the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, the bruised palms of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon prove otherwise.
It was typical Italy from down the ages – even when winning trophies.
They were highly effective at times but nervously risked everything on other occasions despite almost finishing top of Group C had it not been for Spain’s late winner in the 1-0 win over Croatia.
The fact both goals came from corners, Antonio Cassano’s 35th-minute header just sneaking over the line and substitute Mario Balotelli’s hooked effort going in on 90, demonstrates that real flowing football is not yet there despite a lot of possession.
Already eliminated Ireland were true to the words of Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni as they battled for a goal, particularly midway through the second half, far more than in their 4-0 defeat by Spain.
“It has been a very difficult match, we came up against a team that made us suffer,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who changed his formation back to four in defence.
“Today we knew that heart mattered more than quality. Tonight we created a lot, I hope it will be like this also in the next match.”
The Irish were close to an equaliser when Keith Andrews, later sent off for a second booking, fired in a thunderous free kick which Buffon pushed away but on another day it could have nestled in the corner of the net and broken Italian hearts.
They had other half chances in the second period and Buffon also flapped at a cross with the ball flying narrowly over his bar, prompting the skipper to apologise to his troops while also trying to calm them down knowing a draw was not enough.
Italy, who had thrown away leads in 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia, still deserved their victory and progression and with practical yet passionate Prandelli in charge they could still challenge for the title.
A lot will depend on how Balotelli, dropped in place of Antonio Di Natale, responds to his superbly taken goal and whether he uses his new-found confidence to good effect rather than turning it into the arrogance that has dogged his career.
He was left on the bench after falling to impress in the first two group games and worries about a minor knee injury were clearly allayed by the way he smoothly lashed in the corner at the death to finally let the Italians breath a sigh of relief.
Reigning European champions Spain lived to fight another day when a late Jesus Navas goal gave them an edgy 1-0 victory over Euro 2012 Group C rivals Croatia and sent them into the last eight of the tournament.
The goal that started with a piece of brilliance from substitute Cesc Fabregas, who lobbed the ball over a napping defence for Andres Iniesta to feed substitute Navas, killed off Croatia’s chances of a spot in the quarter-finals.
Spain topped the group on seven points with Italy, also advancing after a 2-0 win over Ireland, on five and Croatia with four. The Irish finished with zero.
It was, however, hardly a display that world champions Spain will want to remember. “The performance as a whole was not brilliant but we dominated,” said coach Vicente del Bosque.
The Croats, needing only a victory to advance and refusing to be intimidated, missed a golden chance through Ivan Rakitic early in the second half.
Defeat would have sent the Spaniards out of the tournament.
The Croats were also unlucky not to have got a penalty five minutes from time when Sergio Busquets blatantly dragged down Vedran Corluka as he was ready to head in from two metres.
Spain will now meet the runners-up of Group D, which will be France, England or co-hosts Ukraine who all play on Tuesday.