Azzurri edge Irish to progress
Cassano and Balotelli on target for nervy Italians
Last Updated: 18/06/12 11:23pm
Italy advanced to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 thanks to a tense 2-0 victory over 10-man Republic of Ireland at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan.
Antonio Cassano's first-half header and Mario Balotelli's superb strike were enough to send Cesare Prandelli's side through in second position in Group C.
A disappointing night for Ireland was made worse when Keith Andrews was sent off for a second bookable offence late on.
Ireland looked set to drag the Azzurri out of the competition alongside them during a forgettable first 35 minutes, but then Italy came to life.
Federico Balzaretti found Antonio Di Natale in space and the striker turned and swivelled before firing his effort towards goal, but Sean St. Ledger was in the way and despite appeals for a penalty referee Cuneyt Cakir waved play on.
Moments later Antonio Di Natale rounded goalkeeper Shay Given, but his right-footed effort towards goal from an acute angle was cleared off the line by the busy St. Ledger.
Italian pressure finally paid off 10 minutes before the break as Andrea Pirlo's corner-kick was glanced on at the near post by Cassano ahead of Andrews and the ball drifted over the line despite Damien Duff's best efforts on the goal line.
Italy dominated the second half in terms of possession but started to get nervous with the clock ticking down and Ireland came mightily close to restoring parity when Andrews fierce strike from a 30-yard free-kick was parried away by Gianluigi Buffon.
The Irish were reduced to ten men in the final minute as Andrews was given his marching orders with his second yellow of the game for venting his anger at referee Cuneyt Cakir.
And seconds later substitute Mario Balotelli made the game safe after wrapping his right-foot around the ball to hook a stunning volley in to the back of the net from six-yards.
Although the Irish restored some of their battered pride, they will return to Dublin having failed to collect a single point.
Duff and his team-mates ran out wearing black armbands to mark the 18th anniversary of the shootings of six men in Loughinisland, County Down, as the victims watched the national team play Italy at the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States.
That day, Ray Houghton's goal secured a famous victory over the Italians, and the latest generation set out in determined fashion in an attempt to repeat the feat.
They might have taken the lead straight from the kick-off when Kevin Doyle ran on to Pirlo's careless pass, but defender Giorgio Chiellini dispossessed him before he could shoot.
Ireland safely negotiated the opening five minutes which had previously proved so problematical in the tournament, but as the deep-sitting Pirlo started to pull the strings, found themselves having to defend for dear life.
But where that had been beyond them in their opening two games, this time they found the resilience and organisation which had brought them to the finals.
The two sides traded blows in their own particular fashions, the Italians stylish and patient, the Irish more direct and abrasive, but with neither goalkeeper being called upon at all.
Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger both had to get in good blocks to prevent Antonio Di Natale from troubling Shay Given, and the Leicester defender had to be on his toes to dispossess the same man as he threatened to carve his way into the penalty area once again.
But with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, Italy started to turn the screw.
Glenn Whelan's misplaced pass allowed Cassano to pick out Di Natale and when he rounded Given on the right side of the penalty area and shot from a tight angle, St Ledger once again came to the rescue on the line.
But the reprieve was only temporary and after Given had conceded a corner by spilling Cassano's snapshot, Prandelli's men edged ahead.
Pirlo's near-post delivery was met with a glancing header by Cassano and although Given got a hand to it, he could not keep the ball out of the net.
The sense of relief among the Italian fans, who were dwarfed in number by their Irish counterparts, was palpable, and will have been shared both on the pitch and the bench.
However, Prandelli's players returned knowing they still had to get through another 45 minutes and hope things elsewhere continued to go for them if they were to progress.
It would have been 2-0 within three minutes of the restart had St Ledger not once again denied Di Natale with a vital block, and Given had to get down well to keep out Cassano's side-footed effort seconds later with Italy looking to kill the game off.
Daniele De Rossi curled a 51st-minute shot over the angle of bar and post with Ireland looking more open than they had at any point until then.
But there was a flicker of hope for the Republic when Robbie Keane forced Ignazio Abate to concede a corner which Dunne headed wide.
Given had to repel another Di Natale effort at his near post with 55 minutes gone, but Andrews tested Gianluigi Buffon from distance for the first time on the hour.
Sensing that their time had come, the Republic launched a sustained assault on the Italian goal, prompting Prandelli to introduce wild card striker Balotelli with 15 minutes left on the clock.
But Buffon had to be at his best to keep out Andrews' drilled 79th-minute shot from Duff's back-heeled free-kick, with Ireland throwing everything they had at Italy.
However, it all turned sour at the death as Andrews, who had earlier been booked for a foul, received a second yellow card for dissent seconds before Balotelli hooked home a Pirlo corner to secure the win.
European Championships Group A
European Championships Group B
European Championships Group C
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European Championships Group D
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