Italy 2 Ireland 0: Lessons as the Azzurri reach the last eight
What did we learn from Italy's assured 2-0 victory over Ireland in Group C, which booked the Azzurri's place in the last eight?
Given’s tournament to forget
While England supporters have lived through many injury dramas ahead of major tournaments – David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2006 – Ireland had their own crisis with Shay Given struggling for fitness. The Aston Villa goalkeeper damaged his knee in training ahead of the European championship, but Ireland’s goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly insisted the 36-year-old’s was in good shape for Euro 2012. But Given endured a nightmare fortnight in Poland. It all began within three minutes of their opening Group C game, when Given, capped 122 times, made a sluggish attempt to deny Croatia’s Mario Mandžukić’s header. The Ireland shot stopper could do little to prevent Nikica Jelavić’s superb finish, but Mandzukic came back to haunt Given in the second half, with his strike rebounding off the woodwork, and then ricocheting of the goalkeeper’s head into the Irish net. It was a devastating blow which ended the prospect of a spirited Irish comeback with 43 minutes left to play. Trapattoni’s side suffered a comprehensive 4-0 defeat by holders Spain in the next group game, and while Given made no obvious error, his contagious bout of uncertainly had spread throughout the Irish defence. The former Newcastle United goalkeeper will have been desperate to end the tournament on a positive note against Italy, but his performance once again came under intense scrutiny. Antonio Di Natale’s relatively tame shot was a straightforward effort but it still squirmed out of Given’s control and wide for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, Given was beaten at his near post by a header from the diminutive Antonio Cassano. He could do little to deny a moment of brilliance from Mario Balotelli in the 90th minute, but serious question marks now linger over Given’s ability to perform at the top level.
Balotelli responds to omission in best possible fashion
Balotelli started Italy’s opening Group C game against Spain, but he struggled to make an impact, with second-half substitute Di Natale producing a clinical finish to hand the Italians a brief two minute lead before Cesc Fàbregas levelled. The Manchester City striker remained in the starting line-up for the next game against Croatia, but it was midfielder Andrea Pirlo who scored a superb free-kick in the 39th minute to hand Italy another lead. However, Croatia managed to equalise in the second half to leave the Azzurri‘s qualification hopes in doubt. The 21-year-old would have relished the chance to take on a familiar looking Irish defence – it contained three Premier League players plus Given – which Balotelli will have encountered several times over the course of City’s title-winning campaign. But Cesare Prandelli opted to change his attack, with Cassano and Di Natale the favoured strike partnership. The AC Milan striker put Italy ahead before half-time, but the duo struggled to get past an Irish rearguard which resorted to desperate defending. Enter Balotelli, and within 15 minutes of his introduction, the striker’s audacious overhead kick from Pirlo’s corner sealed Italy’s progress. He appeared to aim some choice words at Prandelli, presumably still smarting over his omission, but Leonardo Bonucci wisely smothered the forward’s mouth. Prandelli now faces a selection headache for their quarter-final tie, with Balotelli, Cassano and Di Natale all staking their claim over the course of the group stage for a place in the Italian manager’s first-team.
Underrated Italy continue to thrive
With another match-fixing scandal casting a dark shadow over Italian football, the prospect of Prandelli’s side winning their first European championship since 1968 seemed bleak. But successive stalemates against world champions Spain and Slaven Bilic’s dangerous Croatia side left the Azzurri needing a victory over Ireland to ensure their place in the last eight. Sean St Ledger described Ireland as Italy’s “bogey team” after Trapattoni led his side to a victory and back-to-back draws against the them since taking over in 2008. But Italy eased through to into quarter-finals where they will face the runners-up of Group D – potentially England or France. When compared to recent Italian sides that contained Fabio Cannavaro, Francesco Totti and Paolo Maldini, the current crop are far from an intimidating force. But Prandelli’s side is still packed with experience and an element of unpredictability which could prove the catalyst for success. Pirlo was stagnating at AC Milan but the 33-year-old was reborn in Turin last season, helping spur Juventus to the Serie A title. The experienced midfielder is joined by Roma’s talismanic Daniele De Rossi, veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Di Natale, while Balotelli and Cassano are capable of producing moments of unbridled genius that can unlock any defence at the European championship – so write this Italian side off at your peril.
What next for Ireland?
Ireland have been too dependent on the old guard in recent years, and while the experience of Richard Dunne, Given and captain Robbie Keane has of course been invaluable, the latter pair in particular, have struggled at Euro 2012. Looking to the future, and Ireland face a daunting task trying to reach the 2014 World Cup, with Trapattoni’s side drawn alongside Germany, Sweden and Austria, plus minnows Kazakhstan and Brian Kerr’s Faroe Islands in Group C. Trapattoni must slowly ease out the senior players who have served their country so admirably over the past decade, but delivered little success. There are bright young prospects emerging, such as Sunderland’s James McClean, Wigan Athletic’s industrious James McCarthy and Everton full-back Seamus Coleman, who have the ability to reinvigorate Trapattoni’s decaying side. The Italian has been reluctant to place his faith in the young trio so far, but the 73-year-old must now make sweeping changes if Ireland are to make strides over the next two years.