Italy survived a scare against Ireland to book their places in the quarter-finals
Preamble: Back in primary school, we had a competition. The aim was simple: design and build a machine to drop two fun-size Mars bars into washing-up bowls spaced equidistant beneath a piece of string stretched above. My team and I (well, Gavin's dad, who worked at the power station) came up with a design ingenius in its simplicity to perform this one task - that of dropping fun-size Mars bars into washing-up bowls.
It was made of
Lego toy bricks. It had a large wheel and several smaller wheels below, each carefully calibrated to the number of spins on the big wheel, so that at just the right moment as it traversed the string, the trapdoors would open and the fun-size Mars bars would plummet into their plastic targets. So little could go wrong.
And it worked like a dream. We breezed through the heats and were soon school champions. In each round, the hatches opened and out dropped the confectionary. BAM! Back of the net. Jurassic Park.
So, onto the city final (which, if memory serves, was held at Rollerworld, Derby's premier roller-skating entertainment centre). We were confident. We knew our little
Lego toy brick machine worked. We stepped boldly out onto the stage, ready to wow the cream of Derby's young minds with Gavin's dad'sour brilliance. The machine launched, the wheels spun, the hatches opened … but the funsize Mars bars did not drop. The wrappers had jammed in the mechanism. We were a laughing stock.
I mention this because the way which Team Funsize felt as the little machine puttered it's way across the string with those mini Mars bars still lodged in its belly must be something akin to the way Giovanni Trappattoni is feeling now. Trap built a machine with one purpose, one aim - defensive solidity. It worked in the qualifiers and they came into the finals confident that it would work once more. It hasn't. And, just as our little machine didn't just drop its payload badly, but didn't drop it all all, so Ireland's theoretical defensive curtain hasn't simply malfunctioned, it's utterly failed. In Trap's masterplan, the one goal the Republic have scored thus far should have been enough to secure four points after two games. Instead they've shipped 7 (SEVEN) – 7 (SEVEN) - and are already out. Italy – biscotto or no biscotto - should complete their misery this evening.
Team news (sort of): Trapattoni, like honey on a bee's whiskers, is sticking to what he knows. He won't go changing to try to please anyone, even though they've let him down before. It'll be the usual suspects for the Republic, while Cesare Prandelli is pondering a switch back to a flat back four following his experiments with 3-5-2. Mario Balotelli is likely to make way for Antonio Di Natale up front.
Italy, of course, come into the game haunted the ghost of 1994, rattling its chains and going WOOOOOOOOOOO at unexpected moments (but not in a Ric Flair way). Cesare Prandelli has been at pains to play it down – "You have all written and said a lot about this, but I don't think a side of champions like Spain could resort to planning a certain result in advance. It will not happen, because I don't think it is possible" – but outside the camp it's been biscotto, biscotto, biscotto. But surely it won't happen. Surely …
Actual team news
Italy 4-3-1-2: 1-Gianluigi Buffon; 7-Ignazio Abate, 15-Andrea Barzagli, 3-Giorgio Chiellini, 6-Federico Balzaretti; 8-Claudio Marchisio, 21-Andrea Pirlo, 16-Daniele De Rossi; 5-Thiago Motta; 11-Antonio Di Natale, 10-Antonio Cassano.
Ireland 4-4-2: 1-Shay Given; 4-John O'Shea, 2-Sean St. Ledger, 5-Richard Dunne, 3-Stephen Ward; 7-Aiden McGeady, 6-Glenn Whelan, 8-Keith Andrews, 11-Damien Duff; 10-Robbie Keane, 9-Kevin Doyle.
So it's all change for Italy. Ignazio Abate, Andrea Barzagli, Federico Balzaretti, Antonio Di Natale come in. Out go Leonardo Bonucci, Mario Balotelli and the wing-backs Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini. For Ireland, Kevin Doyle gets another start, but, as expected, there's no experimentation from Trapattoni.
Team news reaction
"Oh come on Trap, what is the point of that line-up?" tweets our very own Paul Doyle.
What do Italy need?
Italy have to win and hope the other game does not finish in a high-scoring draw of 2-2 or more. If the other game finishes 1-1 they must win by 3-1 or better to finish above Croatia or better than 4-0 to top the group. If the other game finishes 0-0, an Italy win would take them through as group winners.
What do Ireland need?
Republic of Ireland are out.
Succinct and to-the-point. Uefa, though, do point out that a win would move Ireland up to third at the expense of the Azzurri.
Pre-match email dept
"I can see (just about) why Trappatoni has selected Keane and Duff, but is it redundant to wonder why he has continued with the likes of Given (who is carrying a knock anyway), Dunne (at fault for the calamitous first goal for Spain among other shortcomings), O'Shea, and Doyle (why not start Walters)?" wonders Lou Roper. "On the other hand, Prandelli is wise in dropping Maggio and Giaccherini: Italy 2-0, but will it matter?"
"A possible explanation for the Ireland lineup," begins Richard Stirzaker. "Trap hasn't realised that the squad numbering system doesn't actually require him to start with number 1-11. That, or he just can't be bothered any more."
The stadium in Poznan is, like the washing-up bowls in a Team Funsize city Mars bar dropping final, pretty empty. But our man Paul Wilson is there. "Apologies for lateness of Poznan tweeting," he tweets. "Been stuck on tram full of Irish. Like a sauna, only sweatier and with beer and fags. Plenty of songs though. 'Ooh Trapattoni, he used to be Italian but he's Irish now!'"
Click-clack, click-clack … the teams are in the tunnel.
Anthemwatch: Ireland: Belted out with vigour, the team a mixture of pensive silence and chest-out off-key singing. Italy: A few sections of the crowd clap along, which seems unusual. Only De Rossi and Buffon match Robbie Keane for intensity in the singalong, with Buffon, eyes clenched in emotion, leading the way.
PEEP! Off we go then! "Trap is gonna make it rain fun-size Mars bars in Poznan!" roars Billy Murphy. "OK, maybe some misguided enthusiasm for the tactics but still. With all the stick being dished out to players and manager I'd like to see a bit go towards the FAI who are supposed to inculcate the winning culture. The lads are doing their bit."
5 sec: Ruddy Nora that was nearly a disastrous start for Italy. Pirlo presented the ball straight to Doyle, who skipped through and might have done better from the edge of the area.
2 min: Doyle beats Chiellini in the air, but Keane can't get on the end of his flick-on. Ireland have had more attacking threat in the opening 120 seconds in this game than they had in 5,400 against Spain.
3 min: Duff swings in a free-kick from wide on the right. It narrowly evades the heads diving in at the near post and the rebound drops out to Andrews, whose shot pings away off the forest of legs in the area.
5 min: Italy aren't quite rabbits in the headlights early on here, perhaps more cows in the probing light of a hand torch. They're not looking scared, just a little perplexed.
6 min: Prandelli's side finally get their foot on the ball. Abate wins a corner …
7 min: … Pirlo whips it in deep, Cheillini nods down and Motta can't quite gather his legs into an orderr from which to take advantage in the resulting scramble.
9 min: De Rossi gets beyond the Ireland backline to win another corner. Again Pirlo delivers, but Andrews nods clear at the near post.
10 min: De Rossi looks to go skittering through once more, but Marchisio's return ball is up into the Poznan sky rather than poked through for his team-mate.
11 min: Cassano beats St Ledger and wins another corner. Dunne nods clear for another. The Republic are under severe pressure now, but McGeady smacks gratefully clear as the ball breaks on the edge of the box.
13 min: O'Shea punts an optimistic channel ball into the hands of Buffon. At the other end Pirlo does likewise.
14 min: Pirlo lines up a shot, 30 yards out, but Doyle comes sliding in to nick the ball away. Pirlo crumples but no free-kick. Rightly, as the replays show.
16 min: De Rossi, probably the most influential player on the field at the moment, picks out Cassano with a lovely lofted eight-iron of a pass. Another corner …
17 min: … from which the ball is worked back to Balzaretti, who clumps his shot into the lap of a fan 30 rows back behind Shay Given's goal.
19 min: It's all a bit stop-start at the moment. Free-kick, offside, goal kick, tum-te-tum-te-tum.
21 min: Pirlo pings a rank pass out for another goal kick. His radar has been very much off target thus far.
22 min: A quarter of the match gone then, and as it stands Croatia and Spain are heading through to the quarter-finals. Italy are heading home.
23 min: Ireland break five on three. But McGeady wastes it. He had men in support but holds it, holds it, holds it and the chance slips away. Ian McCourt, Ireland fan, on the other side of the desk yelps something that rhymes with "Pecking Bee Nit".
26 min: Another free-kick to Ireland. Another chance to load up. Duff swings in. But again an Irish player is penalised in the box, this time St Ledger as he climbs on Chiellini.
27 min: Fine block from Dunne to deny Di Natale after Cassano had jinked a yard of space and pulled the back for his strike partner.
28 min: Balzaretti goes into the referee's Big Book Of Very Bad Boys for grappling with McGeady in a style with which Mauro Bergamasco would have been proud.
30 min: Balzaretti romps into the area and pops the ball back for Di Natale, whose shot slams into St Ledger's upper arm/side-moob area. Italy to a man appeal for the penalty rather than descend on the loose ball and Ireland clear.
32 min: Di Natale attempts to squeeze through on the edge of the box, but St Ledger nabs the ball and whumps the thing away. Italy have the look of the side who are going to score. Eventually.
33 min: Glenn Whelan sparks an Italy break with a pass on halfway so miserable it spends all its time in its room listening to the Smiths. Di Natale skips round Given but his shot is cleared off the line.
GOAL! Italy 1-0 Republic of Ireland (Cassano 35) That was coming, and it all sprouted from that ugly Whelan pass. Ireland couldn't clear after Di Natale's clever shot from the byline. Italy won a corner, Cassano got across his marker and flicked a header that pinged off Given and dropped down over the line before Damien Duff could clear.
36 min: Italy, as it stands, top the group.
38 min: O'Shea is booked after arm-clattering with Balzaretti, who runs to the referee pointing to the blood on his lip like a small child pointing out that a sibling has poured the contents of his Tommy Tippee onto the carpet. The set-piece comes to nothing.
40 min: Barzagli shanks a pass out of play. Stats show the pass count is 256-83 in Italy's favour, with the completion percentages 64%-36% likewise.
42 min: De Rossi lines up a shot on the edge of the box, but O'Shea makes the block. Di Natale zips in a cleaver ball to Motta. Another corner …
43 min: Pirlo curls in once more, but Ireland clear.
45 min: Cassano hesitates on the edge of the box as Italy swarm forward again. Another attack breaks down, but they're becoming more and more frequent, like a row of dots that eventually become a solid line.
Peep! The referee brings the first half to a close. Ireland will have been relieved to hear that whistle.
Half-time email dept, No1.
"How are Italy top at 1-0? They drew with Spain, who have a better goal difference," wonders Greg Phillips. "Please help me wrap my head around this."
So, Croatia, Italy and Spain are all on five points. It becomes a mini-league between those teams (ie the results against Ireland are removed from the equation). All three have two points in that scenario, all have goal differences of zero, but Italy are top on goals scored. Spain are second because, as they're level in the mini-league with Croatia, the Ireland results come back into play between themselves and Croatia.
Half-time email dept, No2.
"Is it my imagination or was Given a little dodgy again immediately before and maybe even for the goal?" writes Robert Lowery. "I think he has had a particularly poor tournament."
"What is the Ireland goalkeeper's day job?" wonders Cthuloid on Twitter.
It was a bad fumble to concede the corner, but harsh to pin the blame on him for the goal itself.
Peep! With the grand scheme of things poised on a knife-edge, off we go again.
46 min: Pirlo looks to play out, under pressure, from just about his own six-yard box. And, because he's Pirlo, he does so.
47 min: Balzaretti gets loose inside the left channel and cuts the ball back to Di Natale, whose shot on the turn is scrambled away for a corner.
48 min: Since the half-hour mark, Ireland have spent more time on the back foot than a batsman facing the early 1980s West Indies pace attack. Cassano has another fine chance laid on by Balzaretti, but his sidefoot effort is blocked by Dunne. Really should've done better.
50 min: Di Natale finds De Rossi with a sumptuous crossfield ball. The Roma man cuts inside but wangs his effort over Given's bar.
52 min: McGeady swings a cross deep to Keane, who wins a corner off Abate …
53 min: … Dunne wins it, but can only direct it down and wide.
54 min: Cassano, Motta, Cassano and Di Natale is suddenly romping clear. It's a tight angle, though, and Given is able to smother at the near post.
55 min: Chiellini crumbles to the turf under pressure from Doyle, although it looked like the landing rather than the tackle itself. He hobbles off to general concern and on comes Leonardo Bonucci.
57 min: Di Natale's poor control drops out for Marchisio to hit first time, but his effort is wild and wide.
59 min: Doyle lays the ball off to Andrews who takes a touch and, with infinitely more hope than expectation, zaps a shot straight into Buffon's breadbasket.
60 min: Balzaretti is giving O'Shea a chasing down the Ireland right. Free-kick, five yards from the corner quadrant …
61 min: … Pirlo's set piece, not for the first time tonight, is about as dangerous as a blancmange baseball bat. And off goes Cassano, to be replaced by former West Ham man Alessandro Diamanti.
63 min: Andrews robs Pirlo 40 yards from goal and it takes a flying tackle from De Rossi to prevent a shot pinging somewhere in the vague direction of Buffon's goal. Corner …
64 min: … Duff almost picks out Ward, but Italy scramble clear. Just before the corner, by the way, McGeady was replaced by Long.
65 min: Diamani hooks another optmistic shot towards goal from a tight angle, but Given saves comfortably.
66 min: Pirlo scoops forward to Marchisio, who helps on to Diamanti, who is on the receiving end of an attempted John O'Shea piggy-back. Free-kick. Edge of the box. Pirlo. Danger …
68 min: … scooped up, up and away.
70 min: There's a bit of a sense of "job done" from Italy here. The intensity just dropping, the urgency fading, eyes straying to Gdansk …
71 min: De Rossi goes into the book for a body-check on Doyle so cynical it has its own scathing blog at cynicalderossitackle.it.
72 min: Duff chips in a deep free-kick and Italian hearts are in mouths as Dunne rises at the back post. But he can only direct his header back towards the edge of the box and Italy clear.
73 min: Buffon talks himself needlessly into the book after a challenge by Whelan on De Rossi. Meantime, Ireland have forced another corner …
74 min: … Italy have borrowed one of Sir Alex Ferguson's dog from today's Fiver. But it's not Blind Rage but Blind Panic that is running amok in the Italy defence now. They scramble clear on this occasion, but it's nervy and getting nervier.
75 min: Balotelli replaces Di Natale, Long is hooked in favour of Walters.
76 min: Italy are frazzled and fraying round the edges. Walters is bundled over by Diamanti. Central, 27.4 yards from goal …
78 min: … Duff rolls to Andrews … who fizzes his shot through the wall … fine save by Buffon! AC Jimbo at the end of the desk is having kittens. Unfortunately for him and all Italy fans, so are the XI in the blue shirts out on the pitch.
80 min: Prandelli checks his watch on the touchline, but there's plenty of time yet and Ireland seem to fancy pooping this party.
81 min: Keane robs Pirlo 40 yards from goal but, like a typewriter without its shift key, he can't capitalise.
82 min: Balotelli beats a couple then flops over like an old mattress on the edge of the area. He's convinced the referee, though. Another dangerous free-kick, right on the edge of the edge of the edge of the D …
84 min: … pinged into the wall by Diamanti. As the ball breaks O'Shea appears to handle but nothing given.
86 min: Tick-tock, tick-tock … time is moving like soup for Italy.
87 min: In reasonable news for Italy, Spain have scored against Croatia.
RED CARD! Keith Andrews gets his marching orders for a second booking. On his way off, in the mother of all funks, he launches a ball off towards Kiev.
GOAL! Italy 2-0 Republic of Ireland (Balotelli 90) A wonderful, wonderful goal from the Manchester City striker. A corner swung in and an acrobatic volley crisper and sweeter than a Granny Smith apple.
90+2 min: Italy break from an Ireland corner. Balotelli, with Bonucci clear and screaming for it on the penalty spot, lumps his shot wide. He's so, so frustrating.
PEEP! PEEP!! PEEEEEEP!!! All over. Now Italy sit and wait and pray for Spain to hold out against Croatia. A 1-1 in Gdansk puts them out.
PEEP! PEEP!! PEEEEEEP!!! NO2!!! And Spain have indeed beaten Croatia. The joyous scenes can commence. Bear hugs all round.
So Italy go on to face whoever finishes atop Group D, be it England, France or Ukraine. They wobbled in the opening 20-odd minutes and almost shattered in the final 15, but they survived in the end. No biscotto. Thanks for your company this evening. Goodnight.