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Euro 2012: Group C - Spain and Italy advance, Balotelli scores goal of the championship
Two more traditional soccer powerhouses have found their way into the final eight at Euro 2012, as both Spain and Italy made their way out of the group stages. Goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli paced Italy to a 2-0 victory over Ireland to qualify as the second seed from Group C. While Spain secured top spot in the group, with a late goal from Jesus Navas to edge Croatia by a score of 1-0.
Edmonton - June 18, 2012 - Two more traditional soccer powerhouses have found their way into the final eight at Euro 2012, as both Spain and Italy made their way out of the group stages. Goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli paced Italy to a 2-0 victory over Ireland to qualify as the second seed from Group C. While Spain secured top spot in the group, with a late goal from Jesus Navas to edge Croatia by a score of 1-0.
In a game that the Italians had to have, they decided to not only change their formation that featured a more traditional setting of four at the back but they also went with the veteran duo upfront of Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale. Leaving Mario Balotelli on the bench, despite being the best of the Italian forwards against Croatia.
It was a move that produced little in the opening half for Italy but a timely header from Cassano on a perfectly placed corner by Andrea Pirlo, gave the Azzurri their lead at the thirty-five minute mark.
Over in Gdansk, Croatia played a tight defensive system in frustrating the highly talented Spaniards keeping the group leaders even at nil through the opening half. Neither team created much but holding Spain to draw coupled with an Italian victory, would leave the three teams tied atop of Group C.
After attempting to push forward much more than they had in previous competitions, Italy went back into their defensive shell and created next to nothing upfront. At least until the finally decided to bring Balotelli into the match, with fifteen minutes to play and the controversial striker was superb in his brief appearance. The Manchester City man repeatedly pushed the Irish backline, earning a handful of free kicks and corners, before scoring the goal of the tournament at the ninety minute mark.
Balotelli produced a stunning bicycle kick, off a great corner from Alessandro Diamanti to put the final nail in Ireland's coffin. A mesmerizing finish from the big man, that put an exclamation point on Italy's group stage performance and pushed them through to the quarterfinals.
Croatia were the far better side in the second half,creating many more opportunities than their Spanish counterparts but were unable to find a way to beat goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The captain made a number of timely stops but the quality of the Croatian's finish were far from top notch.
For the second consecutive match, Cesc Fabregas was brought on as a late substitution and for the second straight time, he wasted little time in helping produce a Spanish goal. After coming onto the field of play at the seventy-third minute, it took the Barcelona midfielder just under a quarter of an hour to help break the deadlock.
The former Arsenal standout sent a perfectly timed and simply ridiculous chip over a Croatian line that were pushing forward in an offside trap. The beautiful ball coupled with a picture perfect run from Andres Iniesta, sent his Barcelona teammate and substitute Jesus Navas in all alone, with Navas putting the finishing touches on the winner in the eighty-eighth minute. Croatia were pleading for an offside call but the side official made the right call, in leaving the offside flag down.
The win meant Spain took top spot in Group C with seven points, leaving second place to the Italians with five points from their three games. Croatia were the hard luck losers, finishing in third place with four points but played three great games during the group stages. Ireland, who were officially eliminated after their second game, leave the tournament with a winless 0-3 mark. The defending champs will now face the runner up from Group D in one quarterfinal matchup, while Italy will do battle with the winners of the group.