Soccer / Euro 2012 / Cassano, Balotelli send Italy through
Navas puts Croatia out with late goal, but champions disappoint.
Antonio Cassano's first-half header and Mario Balotelli's spectacular late volley gave Italy a 2-0 win over Ireland which took them into the Euro 2012 quarterfinals as Group C runners-up.
Cassano, who missed half the season with AC Milan after undergoing a minor heart operation, headed home 10 minutes before the break and Balotelli brilliantly hooked the ball home in the final minute to leave Italy second with five points behind Spain.
Italy, who played with one eye on the Croatia vs. Spain game, deserved their win although they had to survive an aggressive late rally from Ireland, coached by their wily 73-year-old Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, before substitute Balotelli's strike.
"It has been a very difficult match, we came up against a team that made us suffer," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "Today we knew that heart mattered more than quality. Tonight we created a lot, I hope it will be like this also in the next match."
The physical Irish, already eliminated after two defeats, forced a flurry of late free kicks and corners as Italy, who gave up leads in 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia, again appeared to tire. Having conceded early goals in losses Croatia and Spain, Ireland were determined not to get caught out again and went straight on to the attack.
Backed by a vociferous and large contingent in the crowd, they looked briefly threatening against an Italian side which featured four changes to the starting line-up. Italy took their time to get going with Andrea Pirlo getting plenty of the ball but struggling to find openings for Cassano and strike partner Antonio Di Natale who replaced Balotelli.
Another thumping Andrews shot was saved by Buffon as Italy clung on and the Ireland midfielder was sent off for his second bookable offense moments before Balotelli settled matters with a superb piece of skill, the maverick forward living up to his reputation when he failed to celebrate his stunning goal.
Spain leaves it late
Substitute Jesus Navas tapped home two minutes from time to snatch a 1-0 victory over Croatia and send holders Spain through to the last eight of Euro 2012 as Group C winners.
Croatia, who battled hard against the world and European champions, went out as Italy finished second thanks to a 2-0 win over Ireland. Spain will now face the runners-up in a Group D featuring France, England, Ukraine and eliminated Sweden.
Spain topped the group on seven points, with Italy on five and Croatia on four, while Ireland finished with zero.
Spain's late winner was tough on Croatia and they probably had the best chance of the game before Spain's goal when Iker Casillas brilliantly blocked Ivan Rakitic's close-range header in the 59th minute.
However, as the game opened up in the latter stages, Spain substitute Cesc Fabregas and fellow midfielder Andres Iniesta were able to carve open the Croatian defense and Iniesta squared the ball for Navas to slid home into an empty net.