Two years on from their 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ triumph, Italy got the better of France once more to reach the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2008. With Romania letting their chance slip in a 2-0 defeat to an under-strength Dutch side that had already won Group C, the Italians registered a 2-0 win of their own to vault into second place.
Even though Marco van Basten rang the changes, a revamped Dutch line-up still had too much class for the Romanians, who remained loyal to the counter-attacking tactics they have pursued to date. Chances were rare in a cagey first half, with most of the play confined to the middle third of the pitch and not a single shot finding the target.
The Oranje upped the ante after the restart, and after Robin van Persie had spurned two opportunities, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slid the ball home following a pass from Orlando Engelaar. Finally emerging from their defensive shell, the Eastern Europeans failed to create any real danger, allowing the Netherlands to kill the game off when Van Persie rifled home a second near the end. The on-song Dutch will now face either Sweden or Russia in the last eight on Saturday.
With no option but to go for the three points, both sides went onto the offensive from the outset. French hopes received a major blow just ten minutes in, however, when Les Bleus' shining light Franck Ribery was forced off with an injury. Fifteen minutes later defender Eric Abidal was sent off for bringing Luca Toni down in the box and Andrea Pirlo slotted home the resulting spot-kick.
As the French tottered, the Pirlo-Toni connection almost put the game out of their reach, only for the Bayern Munich striker to miss two clear chances in close succession. Raymond Domenech's men fought back in the second half, but when Thierry Henry inadvertently deflected Daniele de Rossi's free kick past Gregory Coupet, the game was effectively over. Having fought their way out of the most challenging group in the tournament, the Italians now face the problem of replacing the suspended Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso for Sunday's quarter-final against Spain.
Pick of the day
France-Italy: As Andrea Pirlo's precise chipped pass came down to earth, Luca Toni extended one of his long legs, brought it under control in an instant and bore down on Gregory Coupet in the France goal. But before Toni could get his shot away, Eric Abidal clipped him from behind, earning himself a red card and conceding a penalty that was coolly converted by Pirlo.
Quote of the day
"I never try to predict. All I can say is this team has a real future in front of it. So please let's talk about what the players did on the pitch, not about my situation. There were only ten of them out there but they were brave and still gave the Italian defence some problems." France coach Raymond Domenech.
The numbers game
1978 - The last time Italy beat France in normal time before tonight. That win came in Mar del Plata in a group meeting at the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina, goals from Paolo Rossi and Renato Zaccarelli turning the game around for the Azzurri after Bernard Lacombe's first-minute opener.
The first phase of UEFA EURO 2008 comes to a close on Wednesday with the final matches in Group D. Spain, who are already through as section winners, take on bottom-placed Greece, while Russia and Sweden will fight it out for second place and the right to meet the Netherlands in the third quarter-final in Basel on Saturday.
With an average age of 26 years and 83 days, the Russians boast the youngest squad in the tournament. Lining up against them is a Sweden side with the oldest average age (29 years and 85 days) and featuring the tireless Henrik Larsson, who is fast approaching his 37th birthday. Historically there is less to choose between the teams, Russia having won eight of the encounters between the two nations, Sweden seven and the remaining eight meetings ending in draws.
Guus Hiddink's men have to win to go through, and will be delighted to welcome back playmaker Andrei Arshavin after a two-match suspension. For their part, the Scandinavians are waiting on the niggling knee injury currently afflicting their talisman and goalscorer-in-chief Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Spain coach Luis Aragones has announced nine changes to the starting line-up for their match with Greece. The Spanish have now gone 18 games unbeaten, a run that includes 16 wins. The last team to beat them was Romania, who could so easily have been their quarter-final opponents. The departing Greeks, who now face an uncertain transitional phase, can at least console themselves with the fact they are not the first reigning champions to see the defence of their crown end at the group phase.
Have your say
After pulling off a miraculous escape, can Italy now go on and add the European title to their FIFA World Cup crown?