Mario Balotelli produces moment of magic against Ireland to calm Italy nerves
Italy 2 Republic of Ireland 0
Tuesday 19 June 2012
In the end, all the worrying was for nothing. At least for Italy. Because, while the Republic of Ireland suffered their first whitewash at an international tournament, a 2-0 victory ensured that the Italians went through thanks to events in Gdansk.
The mutually beneficial 2-2 draw that they so feared between Spain and Croatia never transpired. And, in the meantime, Cesare Prandelli's team drew just enough blood from an improved Irish team in an edgy and often odd game.
Prandelli did admit, though, that there was an awful lot of that worrying. "Up until the 75th minute, I was thinking about our own game. But, from then, I was struggling not to get too involved in all of that. In the last quarter of an hour, it did become quite difficult in terms of the emotion of it all."
Prandelli conceded that it was also quite difficult at the start. "We struggled in the first 20 minutes because they decided to try and press us and we couldn't actually squeeze the play in midfield. There was a lot of tension as well. We weren't expecting such high pressing from them. But, finally, when we started to get a bit of organisation, we played some very good football."
Indeed, on the eve of the match, Prandelli had insisted that you make your own luck by playing attacking football. And it was telling that, once Italy shuffled formation to counter Ireland's escalated aggression and finally get in behind their defence, they got the fortune that was required.
Antonio Cassano – who was the only Italian player who seemed completely unaffected by the situation – slipped in front of Sean St Ledger to ensure his header slipped through Shay Given's fingers.
Given their excellent start, it seemed Ireland had allowed the exact same to happen with the match itself.
Giovanni Trapattoni certainly thought so. "I think we played much better than against Spain and Croatia. We played with more personality, credibility and commitment. We made a few little mistakes in free-kicks and corners."
Those little mistakes eventually cost them. After the goal, a previously anxious Italy – illustrated by the fact that Andrea Pirlo, of all people, misplaced a few passes – were much more composed and in control.
And, with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle constantly coming up short against the granite Italian backline, it suited Prandelli perfectly. So, of course, did events in Gdansk.
Things took a turn for Italy, however, when defensive leader Giorgio Chiellini had to be taken off after a clash with Doyle. Prandelli was not very optimistic after the match.
"We're very sad, because he's one of those players who's very intelligent and gives a lot of spirit. But we've got a lot of faith in our physiotherapists and we hope he'll be back."
With only a goal in it at that point, the situation did remain somewhat precarious. And, inevitably, an edge returned. Trapattoni looked to add to it by bringing on Shane Long for Aiden McGeady and Jon Walters for Doyle, with Ireland's attack suddenly looking much sharper.
Prandelli saw those, however, and raised Trapattoni a Mario Balotelli.
Many feared a moment of madness. They got one: from Keith Andrews of all people. He lashed out after receiving a second yellow card.
Instead, Balotelli provided the game's one moment of magic, acrobatically scoring after another corner kick. And his manager praised him for finally "realising" that football is a team game.
More importantly, it put his team though to the quarter-finals. That, naturally, raised the question of whether Italy can now go all the way.
"I didn't set any targets," Prandelli said, swerving the question. "I just want a team that can improve from game to game. In terms of European Championships, if you want to do well, you have to be a good footballing side."
Trapattoni, however, was much more forthright. "Of course, qualifying means Italy have even more confidence. They have already gone past teams like Croatia, who have gone out... so Italy are well aware of their strengths and just how good they are.
"We can't rule them out from anything. They can go the whole way. If certain strong sides are going home, Italy have the quality to go right to the end."
That, of course, is not the case for Ireland. And Trapattoni admitted that, as a result, certain players might have to come to the end of their international careers.
"It's too early to say. I spoke just now with one or two. Maybe in this moment, there is disappointment, and these words are in the air. I will speak with them."
As for Italy, after so much talk of biscotti and being done over by opposition teams again, they had their own say.
And they may now have a very big say on the rest of this tournament.
Substitutes: Italy Bonucci (Chiellini, 57), Diamanti (Cassano, 63), Balotelli (Di Natale, 75). Republic of Ireland Long (McGeady, 65), Walters (Doyle, 76), Cox (Keane, 86). Booked: Italy Balzaretti, De Rossi, Buffon. Ireland Andrews, O'Shea, St Ledger. Sent off: Andrews. Man of the match Balotelli. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Italy 50%. Rep of Ireland 50%. Attempts on target: Italy 17. Rep of Ireland 5.
Referee C Cakir (Turkey). Attendance 44,416.
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