Italy never do things easily and although the 2-0 scoreline suggests they comfortably beat the Republic of Ireland on Monday to reach the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, the bruised palms of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon proved otherwise.
It was typical Italy from down the ages — even when winning trophies.
They were highly effective at times, but nervously risked everything on other occasions, despite almost finishing top of Group C had it not been for Spain’s late winner in the 1-0 win over Croatia.
The fact both goals came from corners, Antonio Cassano’s 35th-minute header just sneaking over the line and substitute Mario Balotelli’s hooked effort going in on 90 minutes, demonstrates that real flowing play was not yet there, despite a lot of possession.
Already eliminated, Ireland were true to the words of Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni as they battled for a goal, particularly midway through the second half, far more than in their 4-0 defeat by Spain.
“It has been a very difficult match, we came up against a team that made us suffer,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who changed his formation back to four in defense. “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.”
Ireland were close to an equalizer when Keith Andrews, later sent off for a second booking, fired in a thunderous free-kick that Buffon pushed away, but on another day it could have nestled in the corner of the net and broken Italian hearts.
They had other half-chances in the second period and Buffon also flapped at a cross as the ball flew narrowly over his bar, prompting the skipper to apologize to his troops, while also trying to calm them down, knowing a draw was not enough.
Italy, who had thrown away leads in 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia, still deserved their victory and progression, and with practical, yet passionate Prandelli in charge they could still challenge for the title.
A lot will depend on how Balotelli, dropped in place of Antonio Di Natale, responds to his superbly taken goal and whether he uses his new-found confidence to good effect, rather than turning it into the arrogance that has dogged his career.
He was left on the bench after failing to impress in the first two group games and worries about a minor knee injury were clearly allayed by the way he smoothly lashed in the corner at the death to finally let Italy breath a sigh of relief.
News of Spain’s win was greeted with a strange mixture of delight and sorrow.
Such is Italy’s penchant for doing things the hard way, the media had become obsessed with the possibility of Spain and Croatia agreeing to a 2-2 draw and therefore knocking the Azzurri out whatever the result against Ireland.
The fact it never transpired will have restored many Italians’ faith in humanity, but Spain snatching the win meant Prandelli’s men finished second rather than top of the group. The victory over Ireland also ensured they snapped an Italian record of six games at major tournaments without a win following their dreadful group exit as holders at the 2010 World Cup.
For Ireland, it was the last gruesome chapter of a horrid tournament, but their raucous and endearing fans will have been proud they finally produced a bit of fight.
“The fans have been fantastic, but it’s a shame the team didn’t perform as well as we know we can and got a result for them,” said 31-year-old striker Robbie Keane, whose international future will now be under the spotlight. “We’ve been beaten by better teams.”