Spain, Italy move into quarters

Italy's Federico Balzaretti (L), Antonio Di Natale (2ndL), goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio...

Italy's Federico Balzaretti (L), Antonio Di Natale (2ndL), goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio Cassano (R) celebrate their victory over Ireland after their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match at the City stadium in Poznan, June 18, 2012. (REUTERS)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:53 PM ET

POZNAN, POLAND - It wasn't pretty for either Italy or Spain.

But when you see your Euro 2012 life flash before your eyes, you'll take whatever you can get.

It was not a very comfortable day for the top teams in Group C, but Italy managed to subdue a determined Ireland squad 2-0 while Spain came up with a late goal to defeat Croatia 1-0. Both go through to the next round.

Spain took the Group C title with seven points while Italy finished second with five. Croatia had four points and Ireland none.

The games Monday were not for the faint of heart. Pass out the Valium.

Italy went into the game needing a win and hoping that Croatia and Spain didn't play to a 2-2 tie, which would have ousted the Italians. It become obvious fairly quickly, though, that Croatia and Spain would not score four goals even if they played for a week.

It became just as obvious that Italy would not have a walk in the park against Ireland.

The Irish may be short on talent but they aren't short on guts. Despite having a tough tournament they were prepared to sell everything they had to get a point, or even a win.

The lack of spectacle on the field was more than adequately addressed by the spectacle in the stands. Thousand of green-clad Irish fans sang, danced and chanted all game in Poznan, urging their boys to shock the Italians. The sight of all the Irish fans jumping up and down in unison was awe-inspiring.

But the Irish couldn't provide the shock and awe.

The Italians have played under that kind of pressure before. They showed some nerves early and played cautiously. But they were well organized at the back and the Irish simply didn't have the kind of slashing players who could trouble the Italians.

Antonio Cassano gave the Italians what they needed in the 35th minute when he headed a corner kick off the hands of Irish keeper Shay Given, off the crossbar and a foot over the line for the 1-0 lead.

Meanwhile, in Gdansk where the Spanish and the Croats were doing their dance, the news of Cassano's goal seemed to quicken their steps. Both teams were now at high risk.

The Croatians actually had the better of the chances, but Spain came up with the key goal that guaranteed its safety. Jesus Navas scored on a play that hinted at being offside.

Back to Poznan we go. When the Italians get a lead against a lesser opponent, most people expect them to keep it. But they had to go through a little hell to fulfil expectations.

The Italians looked tired during the second half and the underdogs came after them repeatedly. As hard as they tried, the Irish just didn't have the skill to generate many clear chances.

The closest they came was on a free kick late in the game that goaltender Gianluigi Buffon smothered.

With the nerves still jangling, Italian substitute Mario Balotelli, who started both previous games, connected on a gorgeous half-scissor kick in the 88th minute that made it 2-0 and relieved all stress.

It did seem, though, that Balotelli wasn't happy with just scoring. He had something he wanted to say to someone after his goal. Known to be a bit of a hot-head, Balotelli was preparing to deliver a dissertation when a quick-thinking Leonardo Bonucci grabbed him in a hug, put his hand over Balotelli's mouth and whispered sweet nothings in his ear.

It seemed to calm Balotelli down.

With that bit of trouble avoided, the Italians managed to make it out of the first round in good shape.


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