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Italian concerns proved unfounded. The conspiratorial 2-2 between Spain and Croatia was some way from materialising and, with this victory, Italy planted their flag in the quarter-finals.

It was some way from being an impressive performance and the substitute Mario Balotelli's sumptuous late volley applied a rather undeserved gloss to the scoreline against an Ireland team who restored a little of their fighting pride.Yet the result was everything to those in blue. They erupted in delight when the news of Spain's victory was confirmed moments after the full-time whistle had blown here and, for a team who had travelled to Euro 2012 without the usual fanfare, they can now embrace hope. Their tournament pedigree always makes them a threat.

Ireland departed without a point but with song from their supporters in their ears. They were undermined by a poor 15-minute spell at the end of the first-half but, in the second period, the manager Giovanni Trapattoni made attacking substitutions. They ran Italy close but did not truly look like scoring.

Keith Andrews epitomised their frustration when he picked up a second yellow card for petulance and, before leaving the pitch, he belted the ball high into the stands. Balotelli, who had been left on the bench until the 74th minute, saw the hand of his team-mate Leonardo Bonucci clamped over his mouth as he celebrated his goal. Italy had done their talking.

It was a different Italy. Andrea Barzagli's return allowed Cesare Prandelli to switch to a flat back four, with a midfield diamond, but Andrews and Glenn Whelan, happily for them, were not outnumbered in central midfield. Ireland had started woefully in both of their previous games, conceding early goals to leave themselves with uphill struggles and there was reassurance to be found in how they opened here.

Had the "fear" that Trapattoni had spoken of dissipated? As Andrea Pirlo struggled for his rhythm initially, Ireland matched their starrier rivals. There was a glimpse of goal for Kevin Doyle, implausibly, in the ninth second, after a Pirlo error, while Richard Dunne almost met a Damien Duff free-kick.

Ireland had returned to the scene of their nightmares. Their opening Group C defeat at the hands of Croatia had played out there, on an evening when frenzied hope had been unceremoniously crushed. There was a different vibe at kick-off time, although the team still enjoyed tremendous vocal backing from the Ireland fans, who vastly outnumbered their Italian counterparts. John Delaney, the populist FAI chief executive, would have been proud.

For the opening 30 minutes, Italy looked loose; their toils summed up by Federico Balzaretti's rugby challenge on Aiden McGeady that earned him a yellow card. It was enjoyable to watch Ireland. Prandelli looked agitated. But, as if a switch had been flicked, Italy came together to enjoy a purple patch while Ireland faltered to find themselves trailing at the interval.

Antonio Di Natale felt that he ought to have had a penalty for when his shot hit Sean St Ledger's upper arm and, moments later, the Italy striker, having rounded Shay Given, struck for goal from an acute angle and watched St Ledger shepherd the ball from the line. Ireland promptly conceded possession and Antonio Cassano's swerving shot flummoxed Given; he was grateful when his fumble wriggled around the post. But his angst was not over.

From Pirlo's delivery, Cassano evaded Andrews to glance a header goalwards that Given, having thrown up his hands, could only get the slightest touch to. The ball had crossed the line before Duff hacked clear from his position on the far post.

Given did not inspire confidence but Ireland fashioned a foothold at the start of the second-half, despite Cassano and Di Natale continuing to menace. Given saved well from the former; less convincingly from the latter. It was a different experience for Ireland to the Spain humbling, when it felt as though they barely saw the ball. Trapattoni's team remained in contention at 1-0 and they flickered in the final third. When Andrews shot at Gianluigi Buffon from 25 yards, the goalkeeper raged at the space that he had found. There were also flashes on set pieces.

The crowd caught the mood and they had an uncomplimentary message for the arch-critic Roy Keane. They would sing when they wanted. Shane Long's introduction was well received, although not by McGeady, the man that he replaced. Jon Walters came on, too, as Ireland went for broke.

For long spells, they pinned Italy back. Prandelli's team reverted to stereotype and sought to cling on grimly, with hands-on defending and slices of cynicism. Ireland went route one and it was uncomfortable for Italy. Andrews unloaded a low free-kick on 77 minutes that required a scrambling save from Buffon. Yet the equaliser would not come. Balotelli and Italy had the last word. Read More

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