POZNAN, Poland, June 19 – Italy put behind them a nightmare run-in both on and off the pitch to reach the Euro 2012 quarter-finals with a 2-0 defeat of Ireland – 18 years to the day that the Irish had stunned them with an opening 1-0 victory in the 1994 World Cup finals.
Italian fears that they would fall victim to a biscotto – or a biscuit – stitch up in Group C’s other game also failed to materialise as holders Spain defeated Croatia 1-0 to top the group and leave the Croatians to take an early flight home.
It also marked a flat end to their 43-year-old coach Slaven Bilic’s reign as he leaves to take over at Lokomotiv Moscow.
Spain will face the Group D runners-up in their quarter-final while Italy will play that group’s runners-up.
Goals by Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario Balotelli ensured that the two most controversial players on the squad made headlines for the right reasons – though the latter looked to be keen on ruining his moment with some choice words.
Fellow substitute Leonardo Bonucci looked to have done him a favour by covering his mouth.
However, the victory and the place in the last eight put to bed their poor form coming into the finals and it said it all that this was their first win since last November.
With the added pressure of the matchfixing scandal that blew up just as they were settling into their pre-tournament training camp coach Cesare Prandelli could be rightly proud of his players.
However, Prandelli – who replaced Marcello Lippi after the humiliating first round exit at the 2010 World Cup finals – took note of the worrying fashion in which his side slowed considerably in the final quarter as they have done in their previous two games.
“Yes, I suffered a lot, but there was qualification at stake! Until the 75th minute we were comfortable, but after that, the Irish finished really strongly,” said Prandelli.
The Irish – who wore black armbands in remembrance of six people killed when loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force sprayed a pub in Northern Ireland the day of the 1994 World Cup game – finished without a point.
However, they could take some heart out of the manner in which they upped their performance against the Italians – though it didn’t take much to do so.
It was a sad way to end for what is likely to be the final bow at this level for veterans such as goalkeeper Shay Given, winger Damien Duff, who captained the side on his 100th appearance, and regular skipper Robbie Keane.
Their 73-year-old Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni was nevertheless happy with their final performance.
“We played much better this evening than we did against Spain and Croatia, we played with more personality and respected what we had said about credibility and commitment,” he said.
Spain didn’t produce one of their most scintillating performances against the Croats and could count themselves a little fortunate not to have come off worse had the Croats not had a worthy penalty appeal turned down by Wolfgang Stark.
“It was a difficult, intense match,” admitted Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, the man who led the Furia Roja to World Cup glory in 2010.
“They got men behind the ball and stayed back and kept their shape well, only coming out on the counter-attack. Yet we had expected as much.”
“We have a great team and this team hasn’t said their last word, they have stil more to come and I just want to say a big thank you to my players, I have enjoyed the six years, every moment.
“I will never be as proud as I am now as being coach of Croatia is a unique experience