The complex tiebreakers on the table for the final two matches of Group C play provided plenty of intrigue for Monday’s matches.
Antonio Cassano’s header at the near post provided the only goal of the opening half in either match, but it was Jesus Navas’ disputed 88th-minute finish that sealed Italy’s path to the quarterfinals.
Croatia, despite matching Spain all night and out-shooting the defending champions 21-16, could not equalize, and as the announcement of the final whistle made its way to Stadion Miejski in Poznan, the Italians erupted in celebration.
Italy had not won an international match in its previous six tries, and for much of Monday’s match against the lame-duck Irish, it appeared they could fail to advance at a major tournament for the second time in two years. But the Italians kept applying pressure and on their sixth corner kick of the first half, Andrea Pirlo curled a ball toward the near post where Cassano nodded it backward and into the net.
The goal put Italy on top of the group and meant a goal from Croatia could oust Spain. But the Spanish — who in typical fashion held possession for 72 percent of the match — finally broke through in the final minutes.
Cesc Fabregas flicked a chip behind Croatia’s backline where Andres Iniesta timed his run perfectly to beat the offside trap and passed to Navas the easy finish. But while Iniesta appeared even with the backline when the ball was kicked, Navas was offside, leading the Croatians to stay put and appeal for a whistle while their goalie was left helpless behind them. The flag never went up and the goal stood.
In the other match, Ireland threatened to answer several times in the second half where a draw would have ousted the Italians in favor of Croatia. But in the 90th minute, mercurial Italian striker Mario Balotelli, on as a late sub, booted another Pirlo corner past Shay Given on a brilliant bit of skill with his back to the goal for a 2-0 lead.
Croatia had its chances against Spain. In the 59th minute Luka Modric flipped a perfect cross to an unmarked Ivan Rakitic who got plenty of force on his high header from the six-yard line. But Iker Casillas lunged to his right to make a tremendous save that kept the game level at 0-0 and kept Spanish fans everywhere smashing their televisions.
Fresh off his strong outing against Ireland, Fernando Torres had a dreadful day for the Spanish and was subbed off in the 61st minute for Navas.
The Spanish will face the Group D runner-up while Italy will get the group winner. The Italians snapped a six-match winless streak in international competitions with their victory Monday and avoided another group stage exit after their poor showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.