Spain and Italy scrape through
JUNE 19 — For a team that entered the European Championships under the cloud of the latest match-fixing corruption scandal to hit Serie A, it was fitting that Italy prepared for last night’s decisive group game against the Republic of Ireland amidst fevered speculation that they would be victims of a “fix”.
As soon as the second set of group games had been completed, it became apparent that a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia would send both sides through, irrespective of the result Italy gained against Ireland.
That possibility arose due to the fact that teams with the same number of points are separated by head-to-head records, rather than overall goal difference — the same formula that saw Russia eliminated even though they had the best goal difference in their group — and a 2-2 draw would have given Croatia the superior record because Italy had only drawn 1-1 against Spain.
Italy have suffered from the exact same scenario before: as recently as 2004, they were sent packing from the group stages after Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Denmark drew their final game 2-2. That led to uproar in Italy — a country which knows a thing or two about match-fixing — but no action was taken and Italian paranoia was allowed to grow.
In the build-up to last night’s games, little else was talked about. Croatia and Spain players and coaches lined up to brush aside the speculation of a pact between their teams as “nonsense” (Luka Modric) and “disrespectful” (Fernando Torres), while Italy players did their best to assure us, and themselves, that they trusted the integrity of their Spanish and Croatian counterparts.
One thing that was almost forgotten amidst all the hype was the fact that Italy had to win their game against Ireland — anything else would render the Spain-Croatia result irrelevant. Similarly, it was being overlooked that Spain would have a tough enough task in avoiding defeat against a very good Croatian team without manufacturing a 2-2 draw.
And when the opening whistle blew, it was immediately clear that the biggest threat to Italy’s hopes lay not with any hypothetical Spanish-Croatian pact, but in the determined efforts of Ireland’s players to leave the tournament with at least one point to their name.
Despite already being eliminated, Ireland made life distinctly uncomfortable for the Italians. Their strategy was to press high up the pitch to prevent playmaker Andrea Pirlo from receiving time and space on the ball, and forcing the Italian defenders to play hopeful long balls up towards Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale.
At first, the plan worked and Ireland enjoyed just as many attacking moments as their opponents, with Shay Given in the Irish goal having very little to do. But gradually, Italy’s superior technical ability allowed them to find space between Ireland’s midfield and back four, as Cassano and Di Natale made clever runs into the channels to spring attacks.
Having got to grips with the game, Italy mustered their first real spell of pressure around the half-hour mark. First they had an optimistic penalty appeal waved away when Di Natale’s shot struck Sean St Ledger on the shoulder, and then Cassano fired a swerving long-range shot that nearly embarrassed Given, squirming out of the goalkeeper’s grasp and spinning narrowly wide.
From the resulting corner, Italy had their reward: Cassano found space at the near post and glanced a header towards goal, which the combined efforts of Given and Damien Duff could not keep out. 1-0 to the Azzurri.
The interval was reached without further incident, and Italy were halfway there; meanwhile, Spain and Croatia were playing out a chanceless encounter that appeared to have no chance of finishing with the much-discussed 2-2 scoreline.
In fact, that game was a very nervy affair for the Spanish: with Italy winning, they were just one Croatian goal away from making a shock exit, and that eventuality very nearly occurred when Ivan Rakitic’s close-range header produced a brilliant save from Iker Casillas. Really, Rakitic should have scored, which would have left Spain on the brink of elimination.
With 15 minutes remaining in both games, Ireland were pushing hard for an equaliser and Croatia were hanging on but looking more than capable of creating chances of their own. Anything was possible — apart from the 2-2 “pact” — and nobody’s place in the last eight was assured.
As the tension mounted, Gianluigi Buffon maintained Italy’s lead with a good save from Keith Andrews’ driven free-kick; Casillas again rescued Spain by keeping out Ivan Perisic’s low effort; Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa had to be alert to deny Cesc Fabregas and Jesus Navas... would a decisive goal come in either game?
It would. Two minutes from time, Fabregas broke the Croatian offside trap with a perfectly timed through ball for Andres Iniesta, whose square pass cut out the stranded keeper and gave Navas the easiest goal he will ever score from two yards out.
Seconds later, Mario Balotelli produced a spectacular and brilliant volleyed finish from a corner to double Italy’s lead, giving them a flattering 2-0 scoreline.
Nerves were settled, Spain and Italy were heading through... but how close they had both been to elimination.
Ireland were left with nothing for their efforts, unlucky Croatia took the unwanted tag of being the best team to fail to qualify, and Italian conspiracy theorists can sleep soundly for another night.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.