Iker Casillas of Spain (C) talks to the team during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Croatia and Spain at The Municipal Stadium on June 18, 2012 in Gdansk, Poland.
(June 17, 2012 – Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe)
GDANSK, Poland (AP) — Unconvincing as it was, it was still enough for Spain.
Spain dominated possession as expected but failed to create many clear opportunities at the Arena Gdansk. And on the other end, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas needed to make a pair of clutch saves in the second half to bail out the world champions.
Spain, which is trying to win its third straight major title, will next face the second-place team in Group D on Saturday in Donetsk, Ukraine. Italy also advanced from Group C after beating Ireland 2-0.
“We made a great step forward. We qualified. That’s what motivates us for the quarterfinal. Our philosophy and style of play are good and we proved it in today’s match,” Del Bosque said. “The team played well even though the match didn’t go as we planned.”
After wasting a number of late chances, Spain finally broke open the Croatia defense when substitute Cesc Fabregas lobbed a through ball for Iniesta. The Barcelona midfielder then passed to Navas, who put his shot into the roof of the empty net.
“We played to the end and we deserved the win,” said Navas, who scored his second career goal for Spain.
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, who is stepping down from the team following its elimination, wasn’t convinced that Spain can win the European title again.
“I don’t see them as big favorites,” Bilic said. “There are some other teams that have more pace and they are more hungry to win and maybe more aggressive on the pitch than Spain team.”
Navas’ goal came moments after Iniesta and Fabregas failed to convert late opportunities, with the European champions often trying to string together one too many passes.
“We suffered a lot tonight. They are very good,” Iniesta said. “We had to be patient. We had to wait for our chance. That’s what we did in the end.”
Croatia could have reached the quarterfinals with a victory – or a draw depending on the score. Casillas, however, made a reflex save on Ivan Rakitic’s header in the 59th minute and then punched out substitute Ivan Perisic’s low volley in the 79th.
Casillas, who recorded his 76th shutout in his 134th appearance, was Spain’s steadiest player in defense as the backline was often troubled in the second half by balls into the box.
Spain appeared to be more hesitant than against Ireland, but more attacking than against Italy, which held it to a 1-1 draw.
The Spanish defense also did well to shut down Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, who scored three goals in the team’s first two matches.
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa; Ivan Strinic, Vedran Corluka, Gordon Schildenfeld, Domagoj Vida (Nikica Jelavic, 66); Danijel Pranjic, Ivan Rakitic, Ognjen Vukojevic (Eduardo, 81), Luka Modric, Darijo Srna (Ivan Perisic, 66); Mario Mandzukic.
Spain: Iker Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Alvaro Arbeloa; Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez (Alvaro Negredo, 89), Andres Iniesta, David Silva (Cesc Fabregas, 73); Fernando Torres (Jesus Navas, 61).
Mario Balotelli of Italy smiles at Shay Given of Republic of Ireland during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Italy and Ireland at The Municipal Stadium on June 18, 2012 in Poznan, Poland.
(June 17, 2012 – Source: Claudio Villa/Getty Images Europe)
Mario Balotelli secured Italy’s win over Ireland
POZNAN, Poland (AP) — Blowing kisses to the crowd with a joyous grin on his face, it was a different Antonio Cassano who walked off the pitch this time.
Cassano, who wept uncontrollably after Italy was eliminated from the 2004 European Championship, scored the decisive goal Monday when Italy beat Ireland 2-0 Monday to reach the Euro 2012 quarterfinals.
“We Italians are used to suffering, but we always give our best,” said Cassano, who nearly lost his life with stroke-like symptoms seven months ago and then required minor heart surgery. “The victory was something we struggled for but the most important thing was to get through the group.”
With Italy needing a win to stand a chance of advancing, Cassano scored the first goal. He headed in with his back to the goal by the near post following a corner kick in the 35th minute on a warm and muggy night at the Municipal Stadium.
Substitute Mario Balotelli doubled the lead in the 90th, a minute after Ireland was reduced to 10 men when Keith Andrews picked up his second yellow card.
Still, Italy had to wait a few moments after the final whistle to celebrate, before receiving word that Spain beat Croatia 1-0 in the other Group C match.
The victory ended a five-match winless streak for Italy, which began the tournament with 1-1 draws against Spain and Croatia following three friendly losses.
“I couldn’t wait for them to blow the whistle in the other game and for it to finish,” Cassano said.
Italy had been worried about a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia, which would have eliminated the Azzurri no matter if they beat Ireland. That’s exactly what happened at Euro 2004, when Italy beat Bulgaria in its final group match thanks to Cassano’s winning goal. But Italy was sent home when Denmark and Sweden finished 2-2.
He cried that night, but eight years later he helped send Italy to the next round despite concerns that he might not even make the squad. In October, Cassano fell ill with stroke-like symptoms on AC Milan’s team plane. He was out for five months and has said repeatedly that he thought he might never recover.
Cassano was also left out of the Azzurri’s last two World Cup squads by former coach Marcello Lippi, who worried about Cassano’s temper. There’s never been any question over Cassano’s talent, though.
Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given got his hand to Cassano’s header, but couldn’t prevent it from going in.
Balotelli’s goal was a work of art, with the 21-year-old striker acrobatically wrapping his shot around defender John O’Shea in mid-air, as he met a corner kick from Alessandro Diamanti.
Having started Italy’s opening two matches, Balotelli replaced Antonio Di Natale in the 74th.
Italy will meet the Group D winner Sunday in Kiev, Ukraine – with France, England and co-host Ukraine among the possible opponents.
“No difference to us (who we play). We have already played Spain, who are reigning world and European champions,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “If we play well, we can take on anyone.”
Spain won the group with seven points, Italy finished second with five, Croatia was next with four and Ireland – which was already eliminated – exited its first major tournament in 10 years with none.
“We played well tonight, but without creating too many chances either,” Ireland forward Robbie Keane said. “We’re disappointed not to get anything out of the group, but we’ve been beaten by better teams.”
Italy controlled the match for long stretches, but Ireland – managed by former Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni – threatened often with counterattacks.
Andrews had been Ireland’s most dangerous player.
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon did well to control a bouncing effort from Andrews on the hour mark and the midfielder came even closer with a free kick that Buffon stopped with a diving save in the 79th.
“We had to suffer a lot in this game – perhaps more than in the first two,” Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi said. “We weren’t afraid of them equalizing but they hit the long ball and all you need is one piece of good fortune.”
With the temperature hovering at 30 C (86 F), half the stadium was filled with green-clad Irish fans – even with their team already assured of going home – while there was only a small pocket of Italian supporters.
Ireland wore black armbands to commemorate the 18th anniversary of shootings in Northern Ireland that killed six people.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon, Ignazio Abate, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini (Leonardo Bonucci, 57), Federico Balzaretti, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi, Antonio Di Natale (Mario Balotelli, 74), Antonio Cassano (Alessandro Diamanti, 62).
Ireland: Shay Given, Sean St. Ledger, Stephen Ward, John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Glenn Whelan, Aiden McGeady (Shane Long, 65), Keith Andrews, Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle (Jon Walters, 76), Robbie Keane (Simon Cox, 86).