Last hurrah fails to paper over cracks
A better performance but, ultimately, the same conclusion.
Considering Giovanni Trapattoni selected a team with six 30-somethings, it could be hardly described as an encouraging sign for the future. It was more like the final stand of a generation that has served Irish football well.
Sadly, this Euro 2012 experience will go down as a footnote rather than a highlight. The two-goal reverse means Ireland exit with the equal worst record in the history of the competition. Yugoslavia (1984), Denmark (2000) and Bulgaria (2004) all departed with three beatings and a goal difference of -8.
Irish eyes will now look to September and the start of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers. The complete absence of experimentation in this dead rubber means this encounter will probably be of little consequence for that mission.
In the aftermath, Trapattoni approached senior players in the dressing-room and asked if he would see them in Serbia in August. The response was non-committal, with new centurion Damien Duff particularly emotional. "Now, they are disappointed," the manager said. "I wait to see what will happen, and I will speak with them."
Trapattoni wanted to show the world that he wasn't going to give his native land an easy passage to the quarter-finals and, certainly, the Croatian team who are also packing their bags have no reason to question the 73-year-old's integrity. However, Irish fans are entitled to challenge the logic of some decisions he made during this spirited defeat.
"We played much better than in the games with Spain and Croatia," he said, "With more personality and commitment. But we still conceded two goals from corners, little mistakes. That is the disappointment, but I will not reproach the players. They played with honour. It was more like us."
Ireland emerged wearing white shirts, but it was a familiar team as Trapattoni reverted to the pre-tournament 1-11. Perhaps he drew comfort from the fact that, while Croatia and Spain comprehensively outplayed and out-thought Ireland, this bunch had previously demonstrated they could cause problems for the Italians within his framework.
Cesare Prandelli shuffled his pack, switching from a 3-5-2 to a 4-1-3-2 by pushing Daniele De Rossi into midfield and welcoming Andrea Barzagli back from injury at centre-half. Injury doubt Mario Balotelli was benched, with Antonio di Natale recalled.
As ever, curbing the influence of Andrea Pirlo was the biggest job facing Trapattoni's side. Unlikely hero Andy Keogh managed to do so in Liege 12 months ago. This time around, the task fell to both Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane who took turns trying to neutralise the Juventus man. Indeed, Doyle was particularly successful with a crunching, perfectly timed tackle that left the 33-year-old crying for help.
It was typical of a purposeful Irish start that was both promising and deeply frustrating. Promising because they were competitive and giving the Italians a difficult time. The frustration comes from a feeling that a similar opening against Croatia eight days ago might have made this occasion more than a dead rubber. "I would like to play that game again," sighed Trapattoni.
In the first seconds, the tone was set. The Azzurri were casual and Doyle, fresh from being dropped for Thursday's hammering in Gdansk, burst forward into oceans of space. While that advance was eventually halted, the Wexford man's strong running was a feature of the first 25 minutes. So, too, was the manner in which Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady cut inside to support Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Ireland were narrow, and it was effective. Italy enjoyed more possession, but they were denied real space and struggled to carve the eliminated side open. Diagonal balls over Stephen Ward's head were the sum total of their early ideas; Thiago Motta did find space in the box from a resultant corner before his footwork let him down.
Prandelli's men regrouped as the half progressed, however, and began to spread the play and bring their full-backs into it. A burst from the left side by Federico Balzaretti created a chance for Di Natale whose goalbound effort was blocked by the arm of the unknowing Sean St Ledger. Turkish ref, Cuneyt Cakir, waved away appeals. Italian feelings of injustice didn't last for long.
A misjudged crossfield pass by Whelan invited the blue shirts forward. Seconds later, Di Natale was skipping past Given but, from a tight angle, his shot couldn't find a way past Sean St Ledger. The incident rattled Ireland, though, and the ball was cheaply given away in the aftermath. Cassano unleashed a long-distance attempt that Given carelessly fumbled behind for a corner.
A sharper Given would have collected that strike, and he would probably also have done better from Pirlo's subsequent delivery; Cassano flicked it goalwards and the 36-year-old netminder helped it over the line. Another dreadful concession for the rap sheet. Once more, Ireland headed for the tunnel plotting a comeback.
Alas, it was the opposition who again resumed brighter. Unlike the other Group C protagonists, Italy failed to take chances, with Dunne valiantly blocking Cassano. Ireland struggled to forge openings of the same quality, and Prandelli's men coped with an array of set-pieces. Yet their defensive hand was weakened by the loss of Giorgio Chiellini to injury before the hour mark.
Trapattoni reacted with a first substitution, sending in Shane Long for McGeady, and oddly relocating Doyle to the right wing. The Wexford native remained effective and his endeavour led to some moments of joy. Whelan and Andrews pressed higher up the park as the Italians displayed signs of nerves.
Trapattoni then called the unlucky Doyle ashore and introduced Jon Walters, who duly forced a foul that resulted in Gianluigi Buffon parrying an Andrews strike away. An Italian shirt responded quickest, with Ireland lacking a predatory instinct. On another night, Keane might have provided it, but his miserable tournament should have ended sooner. Simon Cox was eventually sent in for the last five minutes, with Long now in a wide role -- James McClean and Stephen Hunt spent the evening watching strikers do their job.
The collective were devoid of the creative spark to forge an equaliser, and the late drama would play itself out in the Irish half. Andrews received a second yellow as he argued with the referee over the questionable award of a free-kick. He responded by petulantly belting the ball into the crowd as he left the pitch -- the first Irishman to ever be sent off in a major championship. "We were a little bit angry," said Trapattoni, who understood the 31-year-old's frustration.
His colleagues conceded a corner as they recovered from the setback and they were punished by late sub Balotelli who, in a break from the norm, kept his head while others were losing theirs. His instinctive volley sealed the points.
Game over. Italy progress to the quarter-finals. Irish football returns to a summer of reality, of bankrupt clubs and concerns about the quality of the next generation. Not to mention the financial health of the association that oversees it. Despite a brave show from the players in Poznan, this experience has been a sobering lesson.
The party's over.