Spain spoiled the Irish party in Gdansk when a rejuvenated Fernando Torres netted twice in a crushing 4-0 Group C victory that eliminated Giovanni Trapattoni’s side from Euro 2012.
David Silva and substitute Cesc Fabregas also struck for the world and European champions to put Spain level on four points with Croatia, whom they meet on Monday, at the top of the group.
Italy are third on two points after they squandered the lead to draw 1-1 with Croatia in Poznan and the Republic of Ireland have zero ahead of their final clash with Italy.
“I think we played a very good game,” man-of-the-match Torres said. “We knew from the beginning we needed to win this game and the next one.”
“With the early goal everything was easier and the performance of the team was really great tonight. We are well on the way to getting through to the next round. All our minds are focused on the next game now,” he added.
The heavily outnumbered Spanish fans inside the PGE Arena could have been forgiven for thinking they were in Dublin, not rainy Poland, as the green-clad Irish supporters filled the chilly stadium with noise.
However, it was the Spanish fans who were celebrating within four minutes of the kickoff when striker Torres was quickest to a loose ball after Richard Dunne had tackled Silva.
He rounded Stephen Ward and smashed an angled shot high into the net past Shay Given, his first tournament goal since scoring the winner against Germany in the Euro 2008 final.
Ireland held on until the break, but Spain doubled their lead four minutes into the second period when Given parried an Andres Iniesta shot into Silva’s path, and he twisted and turned before stroking the ball into the corner from close range.
Silva played Torres clean through to slot into the bottomright corner in the 70th minute for his 30th international goal in his 95th appearance, lifting him above Fernando Hierro to third on Spain’s list of record scorers.
The much-criticized striker’s performance after a long period of poor form justified coach Vicente del Bosque’s decision to include him in the starting lineup instead of Fabregas.
Del Bosque had initially played without a recognized striker in last weekend’s 1-1 comeback draw against Italy, when Fabregas had a roving forward role and netted the equalizer.
The former Arsenal captain replaced Torres in the 74th minute and smashed Spain’s fourth in off a post from a tight angle nine minutes later.
“We still have to play against the Croats, a very strong team, and it will be tough,” Del Bosque told Spanish TV.
“They [Ireland] were an excellent team, from the pitch to the stands, and they did not give up at any moment,” he said.
The Spanish supporters were chanting Torres’ name as the clock ticked toward fulltime, but the Irish were still singing the loudest at the end.
“They’re the best team I’ve ever faced, without a shadow of a doubt,” Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews said.
“At times, well, for the vast majority, we were chasing shadows and never got near them. They’re a fantastic side, but it’s so disappointing. We tried to learn from our mistakes about conceding early against Croatia, but we shot ourselves in the foot again,” he said.
“They were silly goals,” Andrews added. “We didn’t learn. But in fairness, they’re a top side — one lapse of concentration and they’re going to punish you.”