Republic of Ireland have done it again. Italy have been shocked 1-0 in a major tournament, just as they were in 1994. Both are through.
Antonio Conte’s side were assured of top spot in Group E, but this was as abject as any performance so far in France. If they had “flat tyres” against Sweden, they must have locked the keys in the car in Lille.
Eight changes were made to the starting line-up and Ireland were fighting for their lives, but the lack of control on proceedings and the sloppy concentration to allow Robbie Brady to head in a late winner was unforgivable for a team of their pedigree.
But, whatever you do, don’t write them off. There is more than a little Greece to this Italy.
This match was never likely to offer a feast for the eyes, especially on a pitch which seemed to shrivel into dirt before the eyes and will be relaid before the last 16. Indeed, there were just 234 successful passes in the first half, the lowest number in any game in the group stage.
With the Irish fans making a wall of noise behind one goal, Italy were under threat for the majority, as Ireland pressed high and ran far and fast – commendably so in the heat and humidity under the roof of Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
25 – Salvatore Sirigu made 25 touches in the first half, at least two more than six teammates. Apathy. #ITAIRL
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 22, 2016
Ireland got the breakthrough in the dying minutes, Brady heading in Wes Hoolahan’s cross to send his side into the last 16. Twelve years ago, eventual Greece reached the knockouts despite a 2-1 loss to Russia.
Italy will now meet holders Spain, inspired by midfield maestro Andres Iniesta. Greece beat 2000 champions France, and Zinedine Zidane, in their first knockout. They had a rampaging Czech Republic and host nation Portugal to follow – surely, it was said, they cannot keep doing this. Everyone knows the rest.
Italy had never been fancied before the finals. They shocked Belgium first, stumbled past Sweden, and lost in Lille – not much to suggest they will survive beyond the last 16. Greece beat Portugal, drew with Spain and lost to Russia before their momentous run.
Greece’s story will forever be one of the most remarkable in modern international football. Even those who abhorred the tactics had to admire their audacity in upsetting the elite. ‘Plucky’ will never precede ‘winners’ where the four-time world champions are concerned.
Italy have lessons to learn from this, but the key protagonists will all return for the next round. As long as they win again, they won’t care what the continent thinks. Spain must be wary.