ANTONIO Cassano's first-half header and Mario Balotelli's spectacular late volley gave Italy a 2-0 win over Ireland which took them into the Euro 2012 quarterfinals as Group C runners-up last night.
Cassano, who missed half the season with AC Milan after a minor heart operation, headed home 10 minutes before the break and Balotelli hooked the ball home in the final minute to leave Italy second with five points behind Spain.
Italy, who played with one eye on the Croatia vs Spain game, deserved their win although they had to survive an aggressive late rally from Ireland before substitute Balotelli's strike.
The physical Irish, already eliminated after two defeats, forced a flurry of late free kicks and corners as Italy, who gave up leads in 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia, again appeared to tire.
Having conceded early goals in losses to Croatia and Spain, Ireland were determined to attack.
Backed by a vociferous and large contingent in the crowd, they looked briefly threatening against an Italian side which featured four changes to the starting line-up.
Italy took time to get going with Andrea Pirlo getting plenty of ball but struggling to find openings for Cassano and strike partner Antonio Di Natale who replaced Balotelli in the starting line-up.
Di Natale had the first real chance after a break down the left by Federico Balzaretti and there were appeals for handball as his shot was blocked by a defender.
Cassano then had a shot fumbled by Shay Given before Italy went ahead from a corner.
Pirlo's inswinging effort found Cassano at the near post and, although Given got a hand to his header, the ball crossed the line before Damien Duff, making his 100th appearance, could hook it away.
Italy kept attacking after the break, Cassano wasting a good chance with a side-footed shot before Daniele De Rossi curled another effort over.
Keith Andrews reminded Italy that the game was not over as his awkward long-range shot gave Gianluigi Buffon his first real test of the game on the hour.
Another thumping Andrews shot was saved by Buffon as Italy clung on and the Ireland midfielder was sent off for his second bookable offence moments before Balotelli settled matters with a superb piece of skill, the maverick forward living up to his reputation when he failed to celebrate his stunning goal.
Defending champions Spain left it late before ousting Croatia 1-0 in Gdansk to reach the quarterfinals.
After a tight encounter, Jesus Navas bundled in a close-range winner in the 87th minute to send the World Cup winners through.