Ireland win back a little pride

That’s that then.

Three defeats, no points but at least a fair amount of pride restored.

Whereas Italy needlessly worried about events that never happened elsewhere, Ireland can pointedly ponder what might have been.

There were, indeed, a number of differences about this game and performance, and not just that Ireland kept the opposition out for the first three minutes.

Indeed, that itself was borne of a much different approach. From the off, Ireland were much more proactive and pressed higher up the pitch than they’ve arguably ever done under Trapattoni.

What’s more, the players were making the kind of tackles and blocks that they seemed a second too slow for in the previous two games.

You could genuinely sense the drive and the determination to make up for the eviscerations at the feet of Croatia and Spain.

Of course, there is a large caveat to all of this: Ireland no longer needed to produce. They just wanted pride.

As such, it seems eminently possible that Trapattoni’s explanation for the previous defeats was correct: the team did get stage fright; they didn’t step up as they might.

And, last night, it was initially Italy who looked affected by the urgency of the occasion. Even Andrea Pirlo appeared disturbed. He was certainly disturbed by Kevin Doyle, who hit him with an abrasive challenge that illustrated the differences in attitude between the two sides. Ireland wanted it. Italy just wanted to get through it.

By the 17th minute, Federico Balzaretti had hit Italy’s first frustrated long shot.

Much has been made of Italy’s revolving central four over the past few months but, far from outmanoeuvring Ireland in the manner that Croatia and Spain managed, they only seemed to serve to confuse each other.

At that point, Trapattoni could even argue that the luck that deserted his side in the previous two games was back with a vengeance. Sean St Ledger was fortunate not to give away a penalty when the ball struck his hand in the area; moments later, he was clearing the ball off the line much more legitimately after Antonio Di Natale attempted an ambitious effort having taken the ball wide of Shay Given.

Except, then, it all caved in again. And this time luck had nothing to do with it. Three errors led up to Antonio Cassano’s eventual goal, not least from Given who should have got a stronger hand to it.

Worse, it came from a set-piece – again, that staple of the Trapattoni era.

On what may well have been his last cap for Ireland, it summed up an indifferent tournament for the goalkeeper while also drawing comparisons with Packie Bonner in USA 94.

And, for all the application of the Irish performance in general, there were also criticisms that could be made at the other end. Too often, Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle chose the wrong option or made the wrong touch.

That will lend weight to the calls that Trapattoni himself made the wrong option in persisting with the duo.

The lead, meanwhile, finally lent weight to Italy’s play. It allowed them to at last pass with the kind of patience and composure that was warranted in the first half before the goal.

And it ensured they were much likelier to score another. Within minutes of the second half starting, Dunne – who was generally much more assured than his previous two performances – got his body in the way of a Cassano effort before the same forward curled over.

Finally, Italy were getting to express themselves and the game took on a more familiar pattern. Italy controlling, Ireland countering with long balls.

The futility of that against this backline was illustrated, however, when Giorgio Chiellini completely overpowered Dunne at a set-piece.

To give Trapattoni some credit after all the justified criticism of his rigid approach, however, he did look to alter things again by bringing on Shane Long for McGeady on 65 minutes, with Doyle moving more out to the wing.

It did work wonderfully on 70 minutes when Doyle and Long exchanged passes exquisitely only for the former to be bundled over by De Rossi: evidence of increasing Italian anxiety as the game wore down with just a goal in it.

In that, it was perhaps a lesson for Trapattoni in what can be achieved in the future World Cup qualifiers if he starts to alter things even slightly.

Certainly, it created the impetus for Dunne to almost force an equaliser from a corner.

In the end, though, it was actually Mario Balotelli that converted from a corner to secure Italy’s place in the quarter-finals.

Surprisingly, the steady-minded Keith Andrews provided the one moment of madness as he lashed out after a second yellow card.

At the least, though, despite the score and that dismissal, Ireland kicked back a little bit themselves too.

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