Euro 2012: Italy show mental strength and promise
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 foreboding.
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 the second.
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 performance.
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 Croatia.
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. DM
Photo: Italy's Antonio Cassano (3R) celebrates his goal with team mates during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match against Ireland at the city stadium in Poznan, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Petr Josek