Italy revealed reserves of mental strength that may serve them well for the rest of Euro 2012 on Monday when they overcame a rugged Irish side and their own demons to claim a place in the quarter-finals. Besieged by their medias obsession with the so-called biscotto conspiracy theory and concerned at their goal-shy performances in draws with Spain and Croatia,they delivered all that was required with a solid,if not commanding,2-0 win.
Goals in each half by Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario Balotelli,both from corners by the evergreen Andrea Pirlo,took Italy through to the last eight along with group winners Spain,but it was anything but an easy ride. It has been a very difficult match,we came up against a team that made us suffer, said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
Today,we knew that heart mattered more than quality.
Given the Italian predilection for nervous anticipation,it was little surprise that they viewed meeting an Irish team managed by one of their own greatest coaches,Giovanni Trapattoni,without relish. The sight of the Irish,eliminated and in carefree mood,wearing black armbands in memory of six Catholics who were killed by loyalists in the Loughinisland Atrocity on the same day in 1994 would have been worrying.
Memories of Ireland beating Italy 1-0 in a group game at the 1994 World Cup can only have intensified the sense of foreboding. But Italy,galvanised by Prandelli,proved themselves capable not only of surviving a lively start by the Irish,but finding the cohesion to take control and fashion chances.
Having reverted to the 4-4-2 formation,Italy were ready for Irelands aggressive approach,but needed Gianluigi Buffon to make key saves before Cassanos 35th-minute header put them ahead and again in the closing stages before Balotelli volleyed the second.
The Azzurri were overjoyed when they heard Vicente del Bosques Spain had beaten Croatia 1-0 in the other match,where a 2-2 draw would have sent Italy out and had led Italian media to become obsessed with fears of a possible fix which they call a biscuit.
Gazzetta dello Sport said Thank you Del Bosque on its front page and Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon agreed. Buffon said: I was convinced Spain,who we owe a big thanks,would behave like a great team.