In the end, there was something fitting about the fact that the breakthrough finally came from a throw-in. This was no classic clash but the tournament has another late goal, 31% of them having now come from the 87th minute on; it also has another team through to the next round.
Italy’s afternoon closed with their players running towards the stand and throwing themselves to the turf in front of their supporters, celebrating a second victory that guarantees a place in the last 16, thanks to Éder’s superb winner.
“We are very pleased,” the Italy coach, Antonio Conte, said. “Very few people would have envisaged us making the last 16 after just two matches and a number of people questioned if we would even get through the group. There were a few skeletons in the closet, those ghosts from the past that may have affected the performance, but we should be very happy to be through.”
If Sweden are to join them they must defeat Belgium and to do that, their coach, Erik Hamren, admitted, they must improve their attacking. They must shoot more accurately, for a start. Two games into Euro 2016, they have not yet had an effort on target. Their top scorer is Own Goal and their top player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, spent too much of this game too far from goal, his touch impressive but his threat limited. When he did find himself a yard out with an open goal he inexplicably put it over, although the linesman’s flag had been raised anyway.
For a long time here it looked as if no shots on target in two games might still yield two draws for Sweden, but it was not to be. Not only did Italy eventually score, getting a goal that only rarely felt imminent in a game that was mostly dull when it wasn’t duller, but also a last-minute appeal for a penalty when Andreas Granqvist tumbled was turned down by the referee, Viktor Kassai. “The players feel that it was, but in my position I can’t say,” Hamren said.
“A draw would not have changed much,” Hamren admitted. “We need to win a match, even with a draw today. It changes things for the Republic of Ireland, but for us it is not a big change.”
For Ireland, this result may have further significance, with Conte saying he will make changes in the final game, giving opportunities to some of those players who have not had minutes so far. They can afford to now, having scored the winner with two minutes left.
Marco Parolo had hit the bar from close range after a wonderful ball from Emanuele Giaccherini with eight minutes to go. Then in the 88th minute a throw-in inside his own half from Giorgio Chiellini, whose foot lifted as he launched the ball, was headed down by the substitute Simone Zaza, and Éder dashed from the left. Surging past three players and into the area, he struck a wonderful shot low into the bottom corner. It was the only shot on target in the whole of the second half. “Those small details can make a big difference,” Éder said. “We prepare for everything, even throw-ins, and the fact that the goal came from a situation like that pleases me even more.”
Italy’s substitutes surged from the bench, cheering. There is certainly something about this team; they may not always be that much fun to watch but they are worse to play and no one will want to face them next. Conte admitted that his side had not played well with the ball, in the first half especially, and he will seek improvement. But this is a team aware of their limitations and able to accept, minimise and hide them; able to make the tiniest advantages pay, too. “This team’s strength is that it knows what it is good at ... and what it is not good at,” Conte said.
Sweden had more of the ball here but it could hardly be said that they had enjoyed possession, nor that they did much with it. Italy, who had hit the bar just before the goal, cede so little ground and still carry a threat even when they appear not to attack. They are comfortable in an uneventful game and this was certainly one of those: no European Championship game has had so few shots (12) since 1980.
Much has been made of this being a poor team, the least talented in recent memory, but Italy are Italy again and they appear to be growing. “I hope these two wins can give us greater confidence, self-esteem and awareness of our ability,” Conte said. “At the start we had flat tyres; now we are trying to pump them up a bit, game by game.”
He was trying to pump up the fans, too, calling on supporters to play their part. A touch of jealousy took him as he looked up at the stands here, even if what occurred on the pitch pleased him.
“We need to be happy, pleased, we need to create enthusiasm. I want us to convey passion to those watching us, to our fans back in Italy,” he said. “I want our supporters to put on a blue shirt. When you see everyone in yellow [Sweden] shirts it’s wonderful. It doesn’t have to be an Italy shirt necessarily, just a normal blue T-shirt will do, [to make] a wave of blue. There were 9,000 today but they were all quite dispersed. I want everyone to be involved, to feel responsibility. I want us to convey passion to them.”
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