Italy got through to the quarter-finals this Euro, though this team is hardly deserving. And they know it. The palpable relief, after this 2-0 victory over Ireland, when news came that Spain had beaten Croatia, spoke volumes.
There are truly great, gifted players in the Azzurri but they squeaked out of the first round here. On a strange night of soccer, marked by a dynamic created by an over-eager referee and an Ireland desperate to salvage a little pride, Italy looked unsure, inelegant and indecisive.
Italy's manager Cesare Prandelli ditched striker Mario Balotelli in favour of Antonio Di Natale for the game. In Balotelli's case the words "temperamental" or "mercurial" are usually attached to his name and that's warranted. But, as it turned out, Balotelli was absolutely essential to seal this win. Says a lot about Prandelli's decisions.
It took Italy a full twenty minutes to settle. There was a nervous air about the team.
After back-to-back draws, against Spain and Croatia, Prandelli tinkered with his team and formation for what was a must-win game. He had to.
To those who care deeply about such matters it was hugely significant. To others, who just wondered why Italy looked lethargic in the earlier games and seemed to have an inordinate number of players loitering in midfield, Prandelli changed his formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2 .
Pre-game, some Italian pundits denounced this as an act of desperation, but also hoped it would work. The key difference was putting Cassano and Di Natale as clearly designated strikers, backed by a midfield trio of De Rossi, Motta and Marchisio. Andrea Pirlo would stride imperiously behind the trio, tidying up and making sure the ball moved forward rather than shifted fussily between players more interested in strolling with it than striking it.
Pirlo was certainly the most influential player on the field for long stretches but Ireland's determination not to allow an early goal seemed to surprise Italy. Cassano looked lively, Di Natale passed the pass with glorious accuracy but not much transpired. Inevitably and fittingly Italy's first goal was due entirely to a series of Irish mistakes rather than Italian skill or cunning.
Glenn Whelan gave the ball away, acting much as the entire Irish team had in its humiliating losses to Croatia and Spain. Di Natale got the ball and danced around Irish keeper Shay Given but his shot was cleared and a corner kick resulted. Again, Given looked shockingly shaky and failed to stop a headed ball from Cassano. It was shambles, not skill which produced the goal.
Half-time was spent by some people dwelling on the permutations from Italy's goal and the ongoing 0-0 draw in the other game. Could it possibly be true that thanks to that single goal, Italy was on top of Group C? Some said yes, others said it couldn't possibly be true.
Time passed. Italy made a show of several set-pieces from free-kicks but nothing came of the ostentation except Irish frustration with time-wasting and with Italian players complaining to the referee like schoolboys.
It was only in the 75th minute, when Balotelli finally came on as Di Natale was withdrawn, that Italy began to look like a dangerously skilled side capable of scoring several more. Balotelli's long-legged stroll, deft movement and casual acrobatics made every other player look small and merely striving.
More time passed and the referee, Cüneyt Cakir from Turkey, perhaps jealous of the attention being given to Balotelli, inserted himself repeatedly. He sent off Ireland's Keith Andrews on a second yellow card for dissent. Andrews made his exit by kicking the ball toward the media section where the Italian journalists were typing furiously. Though not about him. Later research showed that Çakır had sent off Mario Balotelli in a Europa League game two years ago.
The Italian press would have known that. Whatever dynamic was at work, Balotelli made it 2-0 in the 90th minute with an exquisite goal, a twist of his long body and legs in a manner that no defender could stop.
So Italy moves on, but shakily. It was interesting to note that the Azzurri were feebly supported here. There were hundreds of empty seats in the section for Italy's supporters and sometimes it seemed that the Italian media contingent was larger than the fan army.
And watching the Republic of Ireland team arrive here and alight from the team bus (Their slogan is "Talk with your feet. Play with your heart.") was another small insight. They indeed had the look of the whipping boys of this tournament. Subdued, grim-faced. Only Ribbie Keane flashed a quick smile at the watching cameras. In contrast, Giovanni Trapattoni seemed to arrive in high spirits.
He was greeted with obvious warmth by officials from Italy's football federation, and there were hugs and embraces. Perhaps if they are all so close, Trapattoni will be canvassed for advice.
That advice would surely be to stick with Balotelli because without him, Italy looks terribly unsure.