The Irish were going home but at least they knew it. In scenes reminiscent of the last day of the Premier League season, Italy had to wait a few seconds until the Spain-Croatia game finished before knowing whether to celebrate or not. Slaven Bilic, in the other match, looked about as happy at being cast in the Sir Alex Ferguson role as the great man himself at Sunderland.
Had this been the Eurovision song contest Ireland would have swept all before them, and their fans would also have scooped the awards for all-day drinking, imaginative fancy dress and amusing pedestrians with the decibel level they were capable of projecting through open tram windows, but as Roy Keane rather too caustically pointed out their actual football was a bit of a sideshow.
In point of fact this whole game was a bit of a sideshow, all but upstaged by interest in events elsewhere and the difficulty of separating three teams who all beat the Irish but until very late appeared likely to draw against each other. As long as the game in Gdansk remained scoreless that was the scenario but what was agonising for Italy, even when in front, was that developments in the other match could cancel out their efforts here. It made for an eery atmosphere, with the beaten supporters in much better voice than their ultimately successful opponents. Even when Spain scored three minutes from time in Gdansk a Croatian equaliser could still have put Italy out.
The first question was whether the Irish could take Italy down with them by preventing a win. It is debatable whether Giovanni Trapattoni would have regarded that as a triumph or not but in the end the delicate point was never posed. Italy were not great against Ireland but they did not need to be. Their opponents were let down by being too casual. First Shay Given spilled Antonio Cassano's shot to concede an unnecessary corner, then Cassano got to the cross before anyone else to beat the goalkeeper at his near post.
That did something Keane has been unable to do this week and silenced the Irish supporters, who until then had been enjoying themselves by jeering Andrea Pirlo's every touch, after the veteran had made too much of an early challenge in pursuit of a free-kick. Booing a peerless performer like Pirlo is undoubtedly bad karma and inevitably it was the Juventus player who supplied the corner for Cassano to open the scoring.
Incredibly, that single, slightly scruffy goal put Italy top of the group in the live standings. As long as the Spain-Croatia game remained scoreless, only the points from this game would count towards second round qualification. All that mattered in a three-way head-to-head with all teams on five points was the results goals between the three teams. Hence, Italy went above Croatia and Spain by virtue of scoring a goal against each of them. Croatia and Spain each scored a goal against Italy, but if they could not manage any against each other they would have to fight for second place in the group, at which point results against Ireland would come into the equation. If the Irish supporters who formed the vast majority of the crowd were working that out, it is no wonder they went quiet for a while.
Cassano could have put Italy further in front at the start of the second half but for Richard Dunne sticking a foot out to block his languid shot, then Daniele De Rossi had a go with a right foot curler that flew too high. Trapattoni remained inscrutable throughout, even when Ireland won a couple of late corners and briefly threatened to undo everything that was being done on the Italians' behalf in Gdansk. Remarkably, Gianluigi Buffon made a terrific save from a Keith Andrews free-kick at almost exactly the point Iker Casillas was denying Croatia a goal in the other match.
Finally it was over, Spain's goal, a red card for Andrews and a brilliant Mario Balotelli finish all happening in a near simultaneous blur right at the end. Cesare Prandelli looked as relieved at the close as a man who had not just lived through the biggest match of his career but two of them, which in a sense he had. Croatia must feel extremely hard done by but you cannot fault this tournament for unflagging excitement.