Italy survives Euro's Group of Death
Italy will live to fight another day at Euro 2008.
The reigning world champion claimed its place in the quarter-finals thanks to a 2-0 win over France on Tuesday, and a big helping hand from the Netherlands.
France was reduced to 10 men in the 24th minute when defender Eric Abidal earned a red card for bringing Italian forward Luca Toni inside the penalty area, and Andrea Pirlo, with the weight of a soccer-mad crazy country resting squarely on his shoulders, converted from the penalty spot.
Daniele De Rossi scored in the second half for Italy in a game the Italians had to win to have a legitimate chance of advancing to the knockout stage.
"This was a great response from the entire team," Italian coach Roberto Donadoni said. "Our enthusiasm and spirit pushed us forward, even when it all seemed lost at one point."
Italy's victory was earned in Zurich, but its passage through to the quarter-finals was secured almost 100 kilometres away in the Swiss capital of Berne where the Netherlands beat Romania 2-0.
Having already wrapped up first place in Group C — dubbed the Group of Death because it was the toughest of the four round-robin groups — the Dutch made nine lineup changes against Romania, which could have booked its spot in the next round with a win, regardless of the Italy-France outcome.
Donadoni, who used to play with Netherlands manager Marco van Basten at AC Milan, said he was always knew the Dutch would not take it easy against Romania.
"I didn't have any doubts. I know Van Basten," Donadoni said. "I know what he's made of. When they asked me to call him, it seemed useless and disrespectful to him."
The Netherlands won Group C with nine points, ahead of Italy (four points), Romania (two points) and France (one point).
The Dutch meet the second-place team from Group D, either Sweden or Russia, in the quarter-finals Saturday in Basel. Italy faces Group D winner Spain the following day in Vienna.
Both teams needed to win
The stakes Tuesday weren't as high for this 2006 World Cup final rematch, but the tension and drama inside Zurich's Letzigrund Stadium was intense. Both Italy and France needed a victory to have any chance of moving on to the next round.
The Italians carved out their first scoring chance in the third minute when Toni gave Abidal the slip and screwed his shot just wide of the post.
French coach Raymond Domenech was forced to make a substitution after only eight minutes when star winger Franck Ribery locked legs with Gianluca Zambrotta and crashed to the ground. Ribery was taken off the field on a stretcher and replaced by Samir Nasri.
The Azzurri were denied a goal just minutes later, but French midfielder Claude Makelele made a heroic goal-line clearance on a Christian Panucci header.
France was reeling and things went from bad to worse for Les Bleus in the 24th minute.
Toni beat Abidal to a high ball played over the top and the French defender hauled down the Italian. Abidal earned a red card and Pirlo compounded France's misery by firing a bullet of a penalty kick into the top corner of the net.
Italy went in for the kill, pouring forward and pinning France deep inside its half. Wave after wave of Italian players crashed upon the shores of the French penalty box, with Toni coming close on three occasions to add Italy's second goal.
French forward Thierry Henry gave Italy a scare when he breezed down the right side and delivered a low shot that just whispered past the far post.
Facing elimination, France pressed forward and applied pressure on Italy in the early moments of the second half. But their fate was sealed in the 62nd minute when De Rossi's free kick from 35 yards out deflected off Henry and past a helpless French goalkeeper, Gregory Coupet.
"We've got to create our own luck," Donadoni said. "We had two chances we let slip away for our own errors and we had a bit of luck on De Rossi's free kick."
To its credit, France didn't give up.
Karim Benzema gave the French a fleeting moment of hope with 15 minutes left in regulation. The young striker unleashed a cannon of a shot that had goal written all over it, but Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was equal to the task and made a sensational diving save to tip the ball away.
"For me this team has a future. I am proud of what they did," Domenech said. "This team has real potential, players who can hope to have a big future."
France: Claude Makelele — The Chelsea star held the French midfield together.
Italy: Daniele De Rossi — The youngster scored a crucial goal and was a workhorse in midfield.
With files from Associated Press