Guus Hiddink, the man the Football Association never quite got round to interviewing about becoming Sven Goran Eriksson's successor, was on course for the first genuine surprise of this World Cup when a hugely controversial penalty decision turfed his Australian side out with the last kick of the game.
The boot had been on the other foot four years ago, when Italians offered all manner of conspiracy theories as the South Korean hosts masterminded by Hiddink beat them at the same stage on a golden goal after Francesco Totti had been sent off. This time it was the former Everton defender Marco Materazzi who received a red card, just as dubiously, after his side had dominated the first half. Australia, having progressed beyond the group stage for the first time, suddenly seemed set for another piece of history. They looked the fitter side and with Hiddink having held back substitutes as extra-time loomed would surely have proved it in the additional half an hour.
But in the 90th minute, Blackburn's Lucas Neill was adjudged to have brought down the Italian left-back Fabio Grosso while lying on the ground. Totti discovered redemption by driving home the penalty and there was not even time for a restart.
Australia had packed their midfield and struggled to offer sufficient support to Mark Viduka. Italy's Luca Toni was the most likely scorer for the hour he was on the pitch. As early as the third minute, he headed a good chance wide at the far post, then nodded down for his partner Alberto Gilardino, who forced Mark Schwarzer to concede a corner. The Middlesbrough keeper then had to save with his feet from Toni. Only after that did Australia worry Buffon, with a header by Viduka and a shot from the defender Scott Chipperfield.
At half-time Gilardino made way for Vincenzo Iaquinta, but within 10 minutes Marcello Lippi had to think again when his side were reduced to 10 men. True to character the Italians insisted on taking off a forward, so the unfortunate Toni was sacrificed. Materazzi had brought down Marco Bresciano as the wing-back was breaking through but there was another defender on hand and the decision could not be justified as preventing a scoring opportunity.
More of those soon materialised, Buffon having to push away another good effort from Chipperfield and Tim Cahill heading Bresciano's corner over the bar. Hiddink, sensing that extra-time might be in the offing, waited until the last 15 minutes before changing his strategy, bringing on a second attacker in John Aloisi. His team were on top by then but Cahill's miss proved enormously expensive, as Grosso burst past Bresciano, then appeared to tumble over the prone Neill, who was lying on the floor with his back to the Italian. The Spanish referee pointed to the spot and Totti remained outwardly calmer than anyone in the stadium - certainly more than his goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who did not dare look.
So Italy are through to a fourth quarter-final in five tournaments. Another place in the last four ought to follow, especially if Toni is allowed a full game.Reuse content