Irish nightmare completed in Poznan
Italy 2 Republic of Ireland 0:No fairytale endings then, far from it, as a nightmare showing at Euro 2012 ended with Keith Andrews being sent off and Italian substitute Mario Balotelli scoring a second for Italy as they booked a place in the quarter-finals of the competition with a comfortable Group C victory in Poznan.
Andrews, arguably Ireland’s best performer in the tournament, received a second yellow card a minute from time and summed up the frustration of the campaign by furiously kicking the ball away as he trudged off and stormed down the tunnel.
Antonio Cassano had given Italy the lead in the 35th minute of the first half, Ireland again being caught out at a set piece as the AC Milan striker headed home from Andrea Pirlo’s corner kick.
Ireland had conceded inside four minutes in their previous two matches but they were almost gifted the lead straight from kick-off tonight when Pirlo presented the ball to Kevin Doyle but Giorgio Chiellini got back to recover.
Looking much sharper than against Croatia and Spain, they were urged on by a crowd determined to make the most of their Euro 2012 swansong. Nervous Italy fans were almost silent as their side struggled to muster a clear opening.
When Antonio Di Natale did get a shot away, Richard Dunne was on hand to block, Federico Balzaretti’s frustration getting the better of him when he was booked for rugby-tackling Aiden McGeady.
The fans kept themselves amused with an impromptu ‘Poznan’ but they were facing the right way again when Sean St Ledger blocked Di Natale’s next effort with what looked like his shoulder, despite Italian appeals for handball.
Italy were suddenly dominant and took the lead nine minutes before half-time after three quickfire chances.
Di Natale had the first, rounding an onrushing Shay Given and firing a 15-yard shot from the tightest of angles that looked to be creeping in but St Ledger cleared off the line.
Given then fumbled a 25-yarder from Cassano behind for a corner, something that proved costly.
Pirlo whipped in the corner, and Given could only help Cassano’s header on its way over the line, despite Damien Duff’s clearance.
It was an excellent decision by the officials, who were doing Ireland no favours, with Andrews and John O’Shea both booked before the half was out.
Another potential defeat did little to dampen the spirits of the Irish fans at the start of the second half but they were almost silenced when St Ledger got himself in the way of another Di Natale finish.
Balzaretti had been causing all sorts of problems down the left all night and Cassano should have done better than sending his latest cutback straight at Given.
Doyle hooked a difficult volley over and Dunne glanced a corner wide as Ireland responded, while Italy suffered a blow when Chiellini hobbled off to be replaced by Leonardo Bonucci.
Andrews’s tame long-ranger was the men in white’s first shot on target on the hour mark before Cassano was withdrawn for Alessandro Diamanti and McGeady for Shane Long.
It had some effect and Daniele De Rossi was cautioned for a foul on Doyle, Gianluigi Buffon following for dissent after a head injury to his team-mate.
Balotelli replaced Di Natale to jeers, Jon Walters’s much more warmly received when he came on for Doyle.
Ireland were staging a late rally and Buffon got down well to repel Andrews’s vicious effort from Duff’s backheeled free-kick.
St Ledger was booked after an Andrews foul on Balotelli before Simon Cox came on for Robbie Keane.
Any hope of an Ireland comeback was extinguished in a dramatic climax, which saw Andrews sent off for a second yellow card, the midfielder furiously kicking the ball away as he trudged off.
Balotelli’s improvised hook into the net from a corner in the final minute merely rubbed salt into the wound.