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Despite Group C containing three of its best teams, the tension of the final games nearly unravelled the quality with which Spain, Italy and Croatia have sprinkled this tournament to date. Spain’s light blue kit was, dare I say it, a bit scruffy, i.e. it suited players such as the Sergios Ramos and Busquets. They produced, for them anyway, a performance to match. And this made for one of the flattest games of the tournament to date. It was well-documented that a 2-2 draw would have knocked Italy out regardless of their result, just as it did in 2004 when Giovanni Trapattoni’s team went home despite being unbeaten with five points. But if Croatia and Spain had finished 2-2 after that first-half the fix would all-too obviously have been in.
Among Spain’s best first-half efforts were long-range strikes by Ramos and his centre-back partner Gerard Pique, which spoke volumes. And Croatia would have gone into the break thinking “job well done,” especially with the shock news that Ireland were still 0-0 with Italy after five minutes. Indeed, Slaven Bilic’s side should have been ahead. The tournament hasn’t overly-suffered from officious officials. But their mistakes have been doozies. And Ramos’s studs-up leap at Mario Mandzukic was one of those tackles which “would have been a free-kick anywhere else on the pitch”, as ITV’s Craig Burley dutifully noted. Actually, Burley’s first reaction was “this is a…woopfh…” and he was right.
Italy were nervous, nearly letting Kevin Doyle in for a shot at goal after nine seconds, from their own kick-off. For all that Ireland played well for the first half-hour (even Roy Keane was relatively pleased), Italy had been largely rubbish, with their through balls to livewire striker Antonio Di Natale so far overhit you would not have been surprised if Mario Balotelli, whom Di Natale had replaced in the starting line-up, had funded the whole enterprise. When Italy got one right, Ireland were eventually undone, although the Azzurri were helped by a fine crossfield pass to Antonio Cassano by…Glenn Whelan and by a Shay Given handling error which brought memories of Packie Bonner against Holland shuddering back into the mind’s eye. At least Given didn’t throw the ball into the net. But he might as well have done as the diminutive Cassano outjumped the beanpole Keith Andrews to head home the corner.
The nerves almost visibly left the Italians and either side of half-time another good long shoe-ing looked on the cards for the boys in Green. In the BBC studio, Steve Staunton suggested that Ireland just needed “that bit of quality” to retrieve the situation. Alan Shearer, who had failed to hide his disappointment at missing the Spain game, suggested that Ireland didn’t have that bit of quality. And for much of the third quarter, Shearer looked annoyingly right. (Incidentally, Shearer avoided saying “Ireland” as if it was in his contract, even contriving to call them simply “Republic” at one stage. Still, better to be called a fashion retailers than a pub team, I guess). But Italian nerves were beginning to take hold, almost as if they knew that Croatia’s game plan appeared to be working, as the Croats started to look penetrative on the break against a laboured Spanish defensive set-up.
I was shocked to discover recently that Busquets was only 23, as he usually plays with the swagger of a seasoned… dirty fouler. But he never looked less 23 than when players such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic found more and more space there. At which point it dawned on me that although Carlos Puyol has looked just about past it for years at the centre of Barcelona’s AND Spain’s defences, Vincent Del Bosque’s men weren’t half missing him. And on 61 minutes, Croatia proved the cliché that “you only get one chance against quality opposition,” when Modric broke and put a cross with the outside of his right-foot on the very central worry line on Rakitic’s forehead. Unfortunately, the cliché continues “and you have to take it at this level, or you’ll get punished.” Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas could hardly avoid Rakitic’s header. And it was Croatia’s best chance by a stretch. They didn’t take it. They got punished.
Three minutes remained when the team with no centre-forward – their lone striker replaced by wide man Jesus Navas long before – were three-on-two against the tiring Croats. A JUST onside Andres Iniesta just avoided controlling a sublime Cesc Fabregas pass with his left upper arm before dinking a neat half-volleyed pass to the unmarked Navas, who was JUST behind the ball as he chested it down and walloped it home. Cue a thousand, not exactly accurate “Jesus saves Spain” headlines. Meanwhile, the nervous Italians were losing the physical battle as Ireland mounted their first spell of sustained pressure for…weeks. Amid the usual scrambles after corners, Keith Andrews pinged a delicious 25-yarder low to keeper Gianluigi Buffon’s right. Buffon couldn’t hold the shot but the loose ball was cleared by Andrea Barzagli the only Italian defender in the same postcode. And the next shot Andrews fired in anger was fired in extreme anger after he’d received a second booking for dissent at an abysmally-harsh free-kick award against him.
Shorn of their best player (yes, Andrews), Ireland almost inevitably conceded again, although it took a beautifully balanced over-the-shoulder number from substitute Balotelli to do it. Balotelli was primed to celebrate AT somebody on the sidelines rather than with his team-mates and may have been fortunate that Leonardo Bonucci produced the best bit of defensive work of the night, covering Balotelli’s big, and possibly potty-mouthed gob before any damage could be done. The first chants of “Italia, Italia” to reach the TV effects microphones came in the 86th-minute. And the cheers which greeted the final whistle were muted (although they would have been drowned out by the Fields of bloody Athenry anyway).
A Croatian equaliser against Spain would have put Italy out. The “head-to-head” rule would have been unable to separate the three sides, as they would have drawn one-each with each other and Italy would have lost out to Croatia on goals scored. So it was a nervous Italian team swapping shirts with the exhausted Irish – Balotelli underwhelmed at the offer of Given’s goalkeeping jersey, when he probably fancied Andrews’ shirt after the Irishman’s post-dismissal tantrum. Players such as Cassano and Buffon were especially ill-at-ease, having experienced a competition exit in exactly these circumstances in 2004. So the news that Spain had shuffled to victory was greeted with a touch more joy than qualification for the quarter-finals would ordinarily produce.
Justice was only partly served by this group. Ireland emerged from it with the joint-worst record since the finals themselves first had qualifying groups in 1980 (level with Yugoslavia in 1984, since you ask). Yet while you suspect that they might have given Greece a run for their money in normal circumstances, Ireland were super-bad. Meanwhile, Croatia are going home having done not very much wrong at all, with time to ponder a competition draw which leaves the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals instead. And Spain and Italy will advance to meet Ukraine, France or England. This tournament is toasting nicely.
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