BEIRUT: Italy and Spain made it out of Group C safely Monday despite two nervy performances. The Italians went through in second place, and looked by far the more comfortable side, after beating the Republic of Ireland 2-0 thanks to goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli.
Spain left it late to beat Croatia 1-0 in a frustrating and crushingly dull fixture. As usual the Spaniards dominated possession but their inability to turn passes into goals allowed Croatia to exert an uncomfortable amount of pressure.
Despite all the good will in the world, the Irish go home from their first tournament in 10 years pointless.
The Irish did make their presence realized during regular intervals of the game but too often they undermined their play with moribund movement, short-termism, many misplaced passes and a stifling propensity to run down blind alleys.
The Irish side did have the first chance of the game however, with Kevin Doyle scuffing an effort just seconds after kickoff. Damien Duff troubled the Italians with his running and set piece taking, initially putting Italy on the back foot and looking slightly disillusioned.
Ireland’s tactic of inviting pressure and hitting Italy on the break may periodically have looked dangerous but it allowed Italy to get into the stride and work themselves into a rhythm. Andrea Pirlo – still a sublimely influential player despite his advancing years – slowly imposed himself on the game, forcing Ireland back and allowing the Italians to set up camp near the Irish goal.
Chances were slow to come but when they did, they came thick and fast.
Antonio Di Natale went close after half an hour, taking down Federico Balzaretti’s cross and firing the ball goalward. Leicester City defender Sean St. Ledger got in the way – sparking shouts of handball – and cleared.
Cassano then had a shot fumbled by Shay Given out for a corner from which the diminutive Italian gave the Azzuri the lead.
In the second half the Italians were far more concentrated and dangerous, pegging Ireland and only rarely letting them have a clean look at Gianlugi Buffon in the Italian goal.
Ballotelli sealed Italy’s place in the next round with a superb volley, executed while reversing into a defender.
The Spaniards left it late to get an unimpressive 10 win over Croatia with Jesus Navas netting an easy finish in the dying minutes after Croatia had looked the more dangerous team for most of the second half.
Spain may have at one point in the first half amassed 78 percent of the possession, they simply were unable to break down Croatia, and more worryingly were unable to open up many chances with only Andres Iniesta going close.
Like Barcelona – whom a good portion of Spain’s players play for – Spain were often left without ideas other than simply holding onto the ball and Croatia nearly made them pay for their lack of cutting edge. Mario Mandzukic was extremely unlucky not getting a penalty call after Sergio Ramos clumsily brought him down inches inside the penalty area. Fortunately for the World and European Champions, the referee pointed for a corner.
The signs looked ominous in the second half and Mandzukic unsettled Spain once again while Ivan Rakitic should have headed Croatia in front after superb work by Luka Modric.
To confuse things further, Vicente Del Bosque – whose judgment is near to beyond reproach after winning nearly every trophy under the sun – decided to sharpen up his toothless side by taking off Fernando Torres, Spain’s only out-and-out striker, for right winger Jesus Navas.
Cesc Fabregas then replaced David Silva, leaving Spain again without a recognized striker. For all the eternal fluidity that playing without a striker can bring, it was an immense gamble by Del Bosque who resisted one good temptation to bring on big man Fernando Llorente.
To Del Bosque’s eternal credit, the faith in his preferred system paid off.
As the game wore on, however, Croatia searched desperately for a goal, eventually allowing Fabregas to slice them open, playing a lofted pass to Iniesta who squared to Navas for the easy finish.