June 19 (Bloomberg) -- Defending champion Spain beat Croatia 1-0 last night to reach the quarterfinals of soccer’s European Championship, with Italy also advancing after a 2-0 win against Ireland.
Spain, aiming to becoming the first nation to retain the title, ensured top spot in Group C when Jesus Navas scored after 88 minutes in Gdansk, Poland. Goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli in Poznan helped Italy to its first win at this year’s tournament.
“They were a great opponent, and played on an equal level to us,” Navas said in comments on European soccer body UEFA’s website, describing Croatia’s performance. “Nevertheless we were able to fight for this victory.”
Spain, which will next face the runnerup from Group D, finished with seven points, Italy five, and Croatia four. Ireland lost all its matches.
Group D concludes today, with France, England and co-host Ukraine competing for two spots. France plays Sweden in Kiev, while England meets Ukraine in Donetsk.
Spain, which could have been eliminated with a defeat, took the early initiative in Gdansk, dominating possession although without testing goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
David Silva made an opening for Andres Iniesta but the midfielder finished weakly. Silva was prominent throughout the first half as top-ranked Spain probed for an opening. Fernando Torres had an effort blocked and Gerard Pique then sent a long-range shot over the bar.
Croatia, a quarterfinalist in 2008 and ranked eighth by governing body FIFA, had its own attacking moments and Danijel Pranjic’s shot was collected by goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Then Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic broke down the right and went down under a heavy challenge from Sergio Ramos but referee Wolfgang Stark decided it didn’t merit a penalty.
Croatia almost made the breakthrough in the 59th minute only for Casillas to save a close-range header from Ivan Rakitic after Luka Modric crossed from the right.
Domagoj Vida then forced Casillas into a save, and Alvaro Arbeloa headed a cross from Darijo Srna behind as Croatia pressed for a surprise winner that could have sent the holders out of the tournament.
Substitute Cesc Fabregas enlivened Spain’s play, setting up Iniesta for a shot saved by Pletikosa before seeing his own effort saved. Two minutes from the end Navas eased Spain’s nerves by tapping home the winner from close range after the Croatian defense was carved open by Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta.
Spain, also the world champion, will join Germany on a record three European titles if it can repeat its success from four years ago.
“It was a hard game to play because of the situation, for the fact that we were nearly qualified,” Iniesta told reporters. “But well, we were there until the end, and then we got the goal that calmed everything down.”
Italy, trying to avoid an exit in the group stage for a third time in its past five European Championship appearances, needed a win to have a chance of advancing.
Ireland, which was already eliminated, had a chance after 10 seconds as Kevin Doyle broke forward but he was unable to keep control of the ball and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was able to gather.
Both teams pushed forward in a very open start to the game, although there were few shots on goal. Italy began to take control midway through the half with Antonio Di Natale having two shots blocked.
Di Natale also had an effort cleared from in front of goal by Sean St Ledger after 34 minutes, and about a minute later his team was ahead. Italy won a corner which Andrea Pirlo took and Cassano flicked the ball past Shay Given and over the line.
Italy started positively in the second half, with a Di Natale effort stopped by St Ledger and a Cassano shot blocked by Richard Dunne in the opening five minutes.
Given also got down quickly to hold a low shot from Di Natale, who had replaced Balotelli in the starting lineup.
Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini limped off moments later, with Leonardo Bonucci coming on.
Keith Andrews tested Buffon from 25 yards when Damien Duff, on his 100th appearance, set up the midfielder from a 79th-minute free kick.
Andrews, though, didn’t complete the match as he received a second yellow card late on. Italy pressed forward and Balotelli, who’d come on for Di Natale, hooked the ball into the net as the game entered injury time.
“Tough victories are the most beautiful ones,” Cassano told reporters. “We don’t fear anybody. The important thing was to qualify, and now the knockout stage starts and we will face anybody.”
The result ends a run of six matches without a win for Italy at major tournaments.
To contact the reporter on this story: James Cone in London at email@example.com.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at firstname.lastname@example.org.