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It was far from pretty, but the ever-pragmatic Italians got the job done in typical fashion, edging out the already-eliminated Republic of Ireland side 2-0 at Stadion Miejski to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Euro 2012. They were denied the top spot in Group C after Spain scored late in their fixture against Croatia, but goals from Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario Balotelli ensured that the Azzurri upheld their hopes of claiming their first major trophy since the 2006 World Cup.
Knowing that they needed a big win to stand a chance of qualifying, Italy manager Cesare Prandelli made large-scale alterations to his rearguard for the encounter, shifting from a three-man defence to a back four in order to cope with Ireland's Anglo-Saxon, physical style of football. Out went Leonardo Bonucci, with Andrea Barzagli replacing him to partner Giorgio Chiellini at centre-half. Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate were new entrants to the starting eleven as well, the duo starting in the full-back positions. Daniele de Rossi was promoted to his natural central midfield position alongside Claudio Marchisio, while vetaran man Andrea Pirlo was used as a deep-lying playmaker for the Azzurri. Thiago Motta lined up as the most attacking of Italy's four midfielders, supporting namesakes Antonio Cassano and Antonio di Natale in attack, the latter beating Mario Balotelli to a spot in the side.
Republic of Ireland made only one change to the side that was hammered 4-0 by Spain in the previous round of fixtures, with Kevin Doyle coming back into the side to partner skipper Robbie Keane upfront. On either wing were Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff, the latter making his 100th international appearance, with Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan forming the central midfield partnership. Richard Dunne again started in tandem with Sean St Ledger at the back, with Stephen Ward and John O'Shea completing the Irish backline ahead of Shay Given in goal.
Having nothing at stake in this game seemed to invigorate Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland side, who started the game with an intent and an energy that was surprisingly missing from them in their previous two fixtures, passing the ball around confidently and applying pressure on the Italians when they had the ball.
That domination however died down rather too early for the Irish, as the Azzurri quickly asserted themselves on the game and started looking the likelier of the two sides to find the opener. The first real half-chance of the game however took all of 27 minutes to arrive, with Dunne doing well to block a Di Natale shot after the forward received a cut back from his strike partner Cassano.
The Italians had a penalty claim turned down soon afterwards, but a goal seemed imminent against an Irish side that hadn't held up very well at the back in either of their two games. That goal finally did arrive ten minutes before the break, with Cassano netting his first of the tournament to propel Italy to the top of Group C temporarily. The striker got his head to a Pirlo corner, his flick-on beating Given despite the custodian getting a hand to it, with the ball crossing the line before Duff could clear away.
Following their opener, the Italians swept forward ominously in search of another goal, with the Irish forced to defend through the closing stages of the first period. They did manage that successfully, but at the whistle it was a contented Azzurri side that held a crucial 1-0 lead, in the process topping Group C with 45 minutes to play thanks to the goalless stalemate between Spain and Croatia in the other encounter.
The Italians resumed from right where they had left off before halftime, dominating the Ireland side who had to scramble across their backline to effect a couple of crucial clearances in the opening five minutes or so.
While the Irish were under the cosh for large periods of the game, they did afford themselves a chance every once in a while, with Andrews' long-range attempt from Doyle's deft lay-off on the stroke of the hour easy pickings for the largely untested Gianluigi Buffon, who saw the ball come right at him.
A rather scrappy period of play ensued from then onwards, with a flurry of substitutions from either side disrupting the rhythm of play that Prandelli's Italy side had built up over the game.
They still looked comfortable, but at 1-0 Italy always left themselves susceptible to an equaliser that would see them crash out of the tournament.
Those fears came close to being realised after Ireland substitute Jon Walters was felled outside the area by fellow Italian second half entrant Alessandro Diamanti. It was Andrews again who was on free kick duty, the Irishman smacking a low, fizzed effort towards goal that Buffon did brilliantly to push away.
The midfielder's day however took a sudden turn for the worse, as Andrews was given his marching orders by the match official for a second bookable offence.
The one-man advantage seemed to help the Italians almost instantaneously, as they finally found a second goal that confirmed all three points for them for the first time in the competition. It was Balotelli who put the Italians safe and sound just as news filtered in about a Spanish goal against Croatia, the enigmatic striker hitting a spectacular scissors kick from a corner into the net before engaging in an angry rant aimed at the Italian bench.
Balotelli squandered a chance to add more daylight between the teams when he chose to shoot instead of pass soon afterwards, but it mattered little as the Azzurri marched on to the quarterfinals of the competition, with Ireland going home after the group stage with no points to show for their efforts.
Italy (4-3-1-2) - Buffon, Chiellini (Bonucci 57'), Balzaretti, Abate, Barzagli, Motta, Marchisio, De Rossi, Pirlo, Cassano (Diamanti 63'), Di Natale (Balotelli 75')
Ireland (4-4-2) - Given, O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Ward, Duff, Whelan, Andrew, McGeady (Long 65'), Doyle (Walters 76'), Keane (Cox 86')
Final Score: Italy 2 - 0 Republic of Ireland (Cassano 35', Balotelli 90')
File Photograph Copyright: 2010 FIFA World Cup
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