Classic Azzurri Match: When Balo Finally Killed Off the Fighting Irish

After Italy started their Euro 2012 campaign with an impressive 1-1 draw with World Champions Spain in Gdansk, Cesare Prandelli took his Italian side to Poznan to face Croatia. Mario Mandzukic would cancel out Andrea Pirlo’s first half strike meaning Italy had to beat Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland while keeping one eye on events in Gdansk as Spain took on Croatia in Group C’s final round of games.

As well as overcoming the Irish, Prandelli’s men also had to overcome the nerves that accompanied a possible group stage exit. For the first time in the tournament, Prandelli dropped Mario Balotelli and put his faith in Udinese’s, Antonio Di Natalie, who partnered Antonio Cassano up front as Italy switched from the effective 3-4-3 formation to a new 4-1-3-2 shape.

Italy started tentatively, as the already eliminated Ireland took the game to the Italians in the early stages. Playing with no pressure and backed by a huge and enthusiastic support, Trapattoni’s side had the first sniff at goal after just 10 seconds. Fortunately for Italy however, Kevin Doyle failed to get the ball out his feet and was unable to finish. With the party atmosphere in full swing, the sea of green and white fans were soon off their seats as Doyle threatened again, this time seeing his header blocked.

However, Italy soon shook off their stuttering start as their influential number 10, Antonio Cassano, began to orchestrate proceedings. First, it took the flying body of Sean St Ledger to keep out a goal bound Di Natale effort. Moments later, having been put through on goal by Cassano, the Udinese forward skipped by Shay Given but the tight angle meant St Ledger was able to get back and hook the ball to safety. With 10 minutes till the break, Cassano tried his luck from range, forcing Given into an uncomfortable looking save. Yet the reprieve was brief for Ireland. From the resulting corner, Italy took the lead after their player of the tournament, Andrea Pirlo, fizzed in a corner which was met by a glancing Cassano header at the near post. Italy led 1-0 at half-time.

Things were going Italy’s way in Gdansk too, with Spain and Croatia tied at 0-0, Italy were going through as group winners. Soon after the restart, Prandelli’s men really should have doubled their lead as Cassano released Federico Balzaretti who returned the ball to Cassano, only for the Bari born forward to have his effort blocked by Richard Dunne.

As the clock ticked on, the Italian nerves seemed to be creeping back. The loss of Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of Italy’s defence saw the backline retreat deeper and deeper, as Gianluigi Buffon desperately tried to take control of his unsettled back four. Ireland began to bombard the Italian rear-guard with crosses, Sean St. Ledger headed over before Buffon had to be at his best to claw away a Keith Andrews effort. With Cassano leaving the fray, the Irish smelt blood as an equaliser would send Italy home.

But as news filtered through that Spain had taken the lead in Gdansk, this seemed to compose Italy. The Azzurri’s cause was then bolstered by the dismissal of Keith Andrews and nerves were truly put at ease when substitute Mario Balotelli volleyed Italy into a 2-0 lead. It was a goal that encapsulated Super Mario’s precocious talent, using his physique to hold off the close attentions of John O’Shea from a corner, while swivelling to hit a thunderous volley past Shay Given. During the celebrations, Balotelli was quick to try and make a point to the Italy bench about his omission from the starting line-up, his choice words wisely smothered by the hands of Leonardo Bonucci.

With Italy doing their bit, they still had to endure a few more anxious moments as a Croatia goal would have sent Italy packing. However, both Italy and Spain did their jobs and won, setting Prandelli’s men up for a Quarter Final tie with Roy Hodgson and England in Kiev.

Watch highlights of this Classic Azzurri Match here

Words by Giovanni Dougall: @giovannid86