Balotelli celebrates after scoring a goal. (AP)
Poznan: Italy have qualified for the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 as Group C runners-up thanks to a narrow 2-0 victory over Republic of Ireland here on Monday evening.
Cesare Prandelli's men were on top for the majority of the first half, and a header from Antonio Cassano 15 minutes before half time gave the Azzurri a lead to hold on to. Mario Balotelli then stepped up to seal the victory moments before the final whistle with a typically dramatic finish from just outside the six-yard box.
Italy came extremely close to taking the lead on the half-hour mark when Federico Balzaretti went on a marauding run down the left-hand side and reversed a pass into the area for Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese forward then swivelled sharply and hooked a strike at goal, but Sean St Ledger was on hand to make a brave block with his chest from six yards.
This was a period of real dominance for Prandelli's side, and they nearly took the lead again moments later when Di Natale took the ball beyond Shay Given and attempted to twist a shot over the line from a tight angle, but Richard Dunne sprinted back to make a terrific clearance from underneath the crossbar.
Ireland failed to weather the storm, however, and went behind in the 38thminute thanks to a headed goal from Cassano. Andrea Pirlo whipped in a dangerous cross to the near post from a corner kick and his former Milan team-mate bulleted a header at goal that just squeezed over the line, with Given and Damien Duff's attempts to clear proving futile.
The Azzurri came bursting out of the blocks after the break, and should have doubled their lead just four minutes into the half when Balzaretti again showed impressive skill down the left to cut a pass back into the danger area, but Cassano's eventual strike at goal from 10 yards lacked conviction, and Dunne managed to clear the ball up the pitch.
The introduction of Shane Long midway through the second half gave Ireland the kick that they needed to up the tempo of their play, with the strength and movement of West Brom striker causing real problems for the nervy Italian defence. A succession of corner kicks in a five-minute period from Trapattoni's men had the Azzurri looking shaky, but their best chance in this period of dominance came when Keith Andrews powered a strike at goal from long range, but Buffon was equal to it and managed to palm the ball to safety.
It all unravelled for Ireland towards the end of the match. In the space of a couple of minutes, Andrews was given a second yellow card for kicking the ball away in frustration, and then substitute Balotelli stepped up to score Italy's second goal with a fantastic bicycle kick from just outside the six-yard box.
This victory sees Italy move on to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, and will face the winners of Group of D. Republic of Ireland are heading home from Poland and Ukraine without have registered a point in the group.