Italy revealed reserves of
mental strength that may serve them well for the rest of Euro
2012 on Monday when they overcame a rugged Irish side and their
own demons to claim a place in the quarter-finals.
Besieged by their media's obsession with the so-called
"biscotto" conspiracy theory and concerned at their goal-shy
performances in draws with Spain and Croatia, they delivered all
that was required with a solid, if not commanding, 2-0 win.
Goals in each half by Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario
Balotelli, both from corners by the evergreen Andrea Pirlo, took
Italy through to the last eight along with group winners Spain,
but it was anything but an easy ride.
"It has been a very difficult match, we came up against a
team that made us suffer," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
"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."
Given the Italian predilection for nervous anticipation, it
was little surprise that they viewed meeting an Irish team
managed by one of their own greatest coaches, Giovanni
Trapattoni, without relish.
The sight of the Irish, eliminated and in carefree mood,
wearing black armbands in memory of six Catholics who were
killed by loyalists in the Loughinisland Atrocity on the same
day in 1994 would have been worrying.
Memories of Ireland beating Italy 1-0 in a group game at the
1994 World Cup can only have intensified the sense of
Ireland had also enjoyed good results in recent meetings
with Italy, both in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup finals
and in a friendly last year and went into the game without fear.
But Italy, galvanised by Prandelli, a former player under
Trapattoni, now 73, at Juventus and a serious student of the
Italian coach's career, proved themselves capable not only of
surviving a lively start by the Irish, but finding the cohesion
to take control and fashion chances.
Having reverted to the 4-4-2 formation that served them well
in the qualifiers, Italy were ready for Ireland's aggressive
approach, but needed goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to make key
saves before Cassano's 35th-minute header put them ahead and
again in the closing stages before Balotelli cleverly volleyed
Buffon also collected a rare yellow card during the second-
half spell when Ireland pushed hard for some reward for their
most enterprising performance at the tournament.
After conceding bad early goals against both Croatia and
Spain, they were resolute and delivered a far more convincing
That was as expected by the Italians who, like their fans,
seemed at times to be biting their nails as they played and
waited for news from Gdansk where Spain finally overcame
Their euphoria on the field after the final whistle, when
news arrived of Spain's 1-0 win, was as much an expression of
relief as celebration, but signalled that under Prandelli this
team has built up a unity and sense of purpose that the 'Trap'
himself would be proud of.
Prandelli's man-management and team selection - he made four
changes from the side that had started the 1-1 draw with Croatia
- were both spot on for this task and confirmed why he has the
full respect of his players.
In an often physical clash that delivered little
satisfaction for the purists, it was Italy's collective spirit
that shone through as all of the men he drafted in, three into a
reshaped defence, performed with admirable poise.
Italy will meet the winners of Group D in the quarter-finals
and, on this evidence, have little to fear if they continue to
make and take their chances and play with the heart of a side
brimming with self-belief.
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